Archives For Cornwall

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

"Psychostasia" by Daemonia Nymphe

“Psychostasia” by Daemonia Nymphe

  • The great Greek Pagan band Daemonia Nymphe have announced that their new album, “Psychostasia,” will be officially released on May 10th.  Quote: “Six years after ‘Krataia Asterope’ (2007) and many Live dates in Europe, the Greeks led by the duet Spyros Giasafakis & Evi Stergiou are back with their new album ‘Psychostasia’ (the “weighing” of souls by Gods). Since its origins the band uses instruments recreated from the Greek Antiquity [...] ‘Psychostasia’ takes us into the journey of a Life, the journey of a Soul. It starts with Zephiros (the god of Wind), then comes ‘Pnoe’ the breath that animates each thing … During the trip, we will meet Gaia, the forces of Nature, the moon dances for Selene and Eros, to finish into Hypnos’s dreams.” You can order and hear samples of the new album at Prikosnovenie.
  • The reality television program “Wife Swap” aired another episode featuring a Pagan family last night, but according to participant Arana Fireheart, the process from his standpoint was not exploitive. Quote: “[The casting director] reassured me that we would be given the chance to present ourselves as a normal happy family that just happen to be Witches and I trusted that he would keep his word.” So did anyone watch it? How was it? Let us know in the comments. I think it’s fair to say that the show hasn’t the best track record regarding Pagan families, so I’m interested to see if things have evolved
  • Stonehenge is looking for a part-time Solstice manager, which has gotten a bit of press attention. One of the qualifications is an ability to maintain good relations with Druid groups and other “stakeholders” who access the stones for special events. Quote: “As English Heritage’s Tim Reeve told the BBC, one of the General Manager’s subsidiary jobs will be to liaise with neo-druid leaders, helping to oversee arrangements for the ceremonies that those leaders conduct to celebrate the summer and winter solstices. The General Manager will work to guarantee, essentially, that the rocks of the 21st century remain as faithful as possible to the rocks of prehistory. It’s ‘important,’ Reeve notes, ‘to ensure we keep the dignity of the stones.’” You guys are lucky I’m not a UK citizen, or I’d have this thing locked up. 
  • A retired Russian Orthodox bishop has been deposed after it was revealed that he was giving psychic counseling at a New Age center in Russia. It seems a fair cop. The Orthodox news site that reported on the incident is in English, but the lingo, acronyms, and haughty triumphalism make it nearly indecipherable to the casual reader (I suppose some could argue the same about my site, though I try to remain accessible). 
  • This story is supposed to be satire, but I can actually imagine certain Heathens saying something like what’s quoted in the “article.” Quote: “It’s an insult to our religion, it is bad enough they turned our God of Thunder into a blond pretty boy in a unitard, but the lack of bloodshed makes a mockery of our beliefs.” You laugh now, just wait until they turn The Morrigan into a superhero character… oh, wait.
Photo: Time Magazine / EFE / ZUMAPRESS

Photo: Time Magazine / EFE / ZUMAPRESS

  • In a move that should surprise no one, the Vatican has made it clear that they really, really, don’t like Santa Muerte. Quote: “The Mexican offensive against Santa Muerte (Saint Death) launched by former president, Felipe Calderon, has now gone global. In an interview last week with a Peruvian Catholic news site (Aciprensa), the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, condemned the cult of the skeleton saint as “sinister and infernal.” The Italian prelate, whom Vatican watcher John Allen recently called “the most interesting man in the Church” and even profiled as a candidate for the papacy, called for both Church and society to mobilize against devotion to Saint Death.” Chances that this will hinder the religious movement? I’d wager they are slim to none. 
  • The interfaith ceremony that took place after the Boston bombing attack excluded humanists and atheists. Quote: “We made it exceedingly easy for the Governor’s staff to find us and include us, but they chose not to do so. The exclusion of non-theists today no doubt deepened the hurt the people in the non-theist community are feeling. What principle was served by our exclusion, I don’t begin to understand.”
  • Come visit scenic Cornwall, we’ve got a really, really, big Celtic Cross. Quote: “We hope it will become an iconic landmark, our version of the Angel of the North, so people don’t just pass by Saltash, but go in.” Also, King Arthur was conceived there, but that’s not exactly a roadside attraction. 
  • Speaking of Stonehenge, here’s a new theory about it. Quote: “…the site, which was occupied continuously for 3,000 years, had evidence of burning, thousands of flint tool fragments and bones of wild aurochs, a type of extinct giant cow. That suggests the area near Stonehenge may have been an auroch migration route that became an ancient feasting site, drawing people together from across different cultures in the region, wrote lead researcher David Jacques of the Open University in the United Kingdom.”
  • My pal Cara Schulz (who also happens to be a Hellenic Pagan), is holding a Kickstarter for a cool-sounding luxury camping book, and in honor of reaching $1,500 of the $4,500 goal she shares a drink recipe on Youtube called the “Blue Gem.” With Summer festival season almost here, maybe we could all use this book? 

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

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

  • Jeet-Kei Leung, a researcher into ”transformational festival culture,” heads up a new web documentary series entitled “The Bloom” about these events. The first episode is due in February, but you can watch this 9-minute preview video now, featuring some familiar faces (and places) and plenty of Pagan-friendly themes. Quote: “Amidst the global crisis of a dysfunctional old paradigm, a new renaissance of human culture is underway [...] THE BLOOM tells the vibrant, compelling and colorful story of a cultural renaissance in progress with the artistic sensibility and inspired creativity from which the culture has been birthed.”
  • Art dealer and museum curator Carine Fabius writes about Baron Samedi, Haiti’s Lord of Death and Sexuality, and why the Haitian people love him. Quote: “I also reminded people that the Baron isn’t just the Spirit of Death. As many of the numerous works featuring larger-than-life phalli imply, he is also the Spirit of Sexuality, the extension of which is life. The Baron is death in charge of life; he is a guide and source of comfort during difficult times, and the one who takes life away. He may be unpredictable but he is God’s ultimate helper.”
  • Yesterday was a unique calendrical event: 12-12-12, which of course means that someone had to do something stupid, like carve a pentagram into his 6-year-old-son’s back. Quote: “According to CBS DFW, Brent Troy Bartel of Richland Hills, Texas, told a 911 dispatcher early Wednesday that he had carved the religious symbol — often used as a symbol of faith by Neopagans — on his 6-year-old child because ‘it’s a holy day.’” The star, or pentagram, is a symbol used by many faiths, philosophies, and traditions, and this has nothing to do with modern Paganism. Bartel is now in custody, the boy is in stable condition, and with his mother.
  • The Cornwall “Paganism Sex Case” (as dubbed by the BBC), which I’ve covered here previously, has now been turned over to a jury for a verdict. Quote: “Prosecutor Jason Beal said the duo had “used the cloak of paganism” to commit the offences. He said Mr Kemp had “put up a number of explanations” for him being linked with the case, but they were nothing more than “diversions” or “red herrings”.” During the course of the hearing, murdered occultist and parish councillor Peter Solheim was also accused of being part of their group (Solheim was murdered by a former lover).
  • The male lead in Bollywood film Ek Thi Daayan, Emraan Khan, is apparently talking to real-live Wiccans to better research for the supernatural witchcraft-themed film. Quote: “The actor didn’t know that many practitioners of the Wiccan craft reside in Mumbai, in fact, he didn’t even know that certain forms of witchcraft are practiced till today [...] the actor is making the rounds of the plush residences in Mumbai where Wiccans stay and practise their craft. Emraan visits them diligently, to find out more about their customs and philosophies. Friends of the actor say his research has made quite an impression on him.” So now you know where Wiccans live in India, the “plush residences” of Mumbai!
  • With a new film treatment of “On the Road” on its way, Scott Staton at the New Yorker considers Neal Cassady as a sort of American “muse and demigod,” a holy fool, “the consummate hipster-savant.” Quote: “He presented an extreme embodiment of American freedom to close friends who were determined to become writers, and in being thus grafted onto their work, he became an unlikely literary legend.”

  • Singer, songwriter, and visual artist Phildel sent me a link to her new video “Storm Song,” saying that it’s “a celebration of the natural world,” and that she has “always enjoyed a strong spiritual connection to nature.”I think many folks here will enjoy the song, and the imagery in the video. Her debut album “The Disappearance of the Girl” is set for release in January 2013.
  • “Hobbit” director Peter Jackson says that “West of Memphis,” the documentary on the West Memphis 3 that he produced with partner Fran Walsh, was one he “never intended to make,” but that “it turned out to be the most important one they’ve ever made.” Quote: “Their support turned into funding of scientific research and, when they felt they needed to present the evidence to the public, they eventually decided to make a documentary on their findings. They asked Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”) to direct.” For all of my coverage of the West Memphis 3, click here.
  • The Baltic Crusades were pretty terrible it turns out: “The Baltic Crusades left major ecological and cultural scars on medieval pagan villages, and new archaeological evidence shows the campaign caused deforestation, pushed species to extinction and may have even ended a pagan practice of eating dogs.” I guess it was good for the wild dogs, but still. Pretty bad.
  • More and more people are starting to notice that the “religiously unaffiliated” are becoming an important voting demographic. Quote: “The religiously unaffiliated voters are almost as strongly Democratic as white evangelicals are Republican, polls show. Their overwhelming support of Obama proved crucial in a number of swing states where the president lost both the Catholic and Protestant vote by single and low-double digits, but won the “nones” by capturing 70-plus percent of their votes.” Maybe it’s time to tone down the Christian culture war stuff?

That’s it for now! My best wishes to everyone heading to Between The Worlds! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of them I may expand into longer posts as needed.

For several years I’ve been asking the question of what do we do when the men and women accused of “sorcery” and “witchcraft” are no longer “over there” in Africa or the Middle East, and are instead at our doorsteps.

“If this trend isn’t seriously addressed soon, we may find this madness turning its eye towards “safe” occultists and Pagans in places like America, the UK, Australia, Brazil, and Canada.”

Now, with the UK still reeling over the murder of Kristy Bamu, who died while being tortured under the auspices of an “exorcism” at his sister’s home, and British police being trained to spot cases of sorcery among immigrant communities, some Christian writers have seized on a largely constructed controversy over religious education in Cornwall to cynically launch attacks on modern Paganism. First out of the gate was  Catholic Telegraph columnist Christina Odone, whose anti-Pagan screed I recently highlighted on this blog.

“God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

To Odone’s credit, she doesn’t explicitly conflate the recent sorcery and exorcism-related deaths and attacks with modern Paganism, though she does bemoan liberals “who spy covert imperialism or racism in every moral judgment.” It took Beliefnet Senior Editor Rob Kerby’s insulting and sloppy article to do that. Interweaving Odone’s opinion piece with recent stories on witch-hunting and killings in the developing world, Kerby joins the imaginary dots.

“In 2005, Sita Kisanga was found guilty of torturing an eight-year-old in London, believing the girl to have kindoki. She told the court that, “Kindoki is something you have to be scared of because in our culture kindoki can kill and destroy your life completely.” But officials in Cornwall, England, say there’s nothing to fear. [...] It seems that the politically correct Cornwall Council regards Christianity as no better than any other superstition.”

Beliefnet’s sole Pagan blogger, Gus diZerega, has posted his own response to Kerby’s piece, hinting that his time at the religion portal may be coming to an end soon if nothing is done. But even if Kerby does ultimately walk back his statements, the connection has been made, and Catholic columnist Christopher Howse has decided to use it to hammer on Cornwall’s curriculum.

Christopher Howse at Glastonbury.

Christopher Howse at Glastonbury.

“So it seems there are now two kinds of witchcraft: the bad kind that black people believe in, and the kind that should be celebrated because it is believed in by Cornish people.”

Howse seems to suggest that there should be no distinction, that all witchcraft is bad. However, he undermines this somewhat by shifting to a “Paganism and Wicca aren’t truly ancient so they shouldn’t be taken seriously” argument.

“What we do know is that there is no continuity between pre-Christian religions in Britain and the various branches of modern paganism. [...] It [Wicca] was no more an ancient religion than Jedi.”

You can’t have it both ways, really. Either all forms of witchcraft and sorcery are indistinguishable, or they aren’t. If you acknowledge that Wicca is something other than the  phenomenon that led to Kristy Bamu’s death, you create cracks in the cynical false dilemma you’ve created to ratchet up the fear and misinformation. This misinformation not only harms modern Pagan religions, but African Traditional Religions as well, and obscures what may be the true culprit. According to groups like AFRUCA, the spread of anti-witchcraft and sorcery violence in the UK is centered in Pentecostal Churches, not indigenous, revived, or reconstructed pre-Christian belief systems.

Blood-spattered bathroom tiles at Magalie Bamu and Eric Bikubi's flat.

Blood-spattered bathroom tiles at Magalie Bamu and Eric Bikubi's flat.

“We were concerned about this before this trial of Kristy Bamu,” said Debbie Ariyo, executive director of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (Afruca), who added that a boom in pentecostal churches was leading to more children being accused of witchcraft. “This is not a problem with all pastors or all churches, but the branding of children as witches is not abating. It is a growing problem. There are so many children suffering in silence.”

You see, what these concerned Catholics don’t want you to know is that this wave of violence is partially the fault of missionaries who inserted Christian triumphalism and a spiritual warfare dynamic into traditional beliefs about malefic magic. This created deadly consequences the missionaries could not (or would not) understand.

Missionaries have commonly responded [to witchcraft accusations] in two ways, said [Robert] Priest [professor of missions and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School]. The power of witches to harm others is dismissed as superstition, but this seldom persuades local Christians to abandon the concept; or the reality of witchcraft is endorsed by missionaries not wanting to be “post-Enlightenment rationalists” with a non-biblical skepticism of spiritual warfare.

The result is that traditional witch ideas are fused with Christian theology, which obscures the social consequences: Accused witches are often destitute or outcast, and thus socially defenseless. Instead of seeing old women or children as scapegoats, said Priest, Christian leaders suggest that witchcraft participates in genuine spiritual evil and that the accusations are reasonable. “The church is providing the cognitive underpinnings for the past system in the contemporary world.”

Nothing seems to be the fault of Christianity, of course. Even though there are several high-profile Christian witch-hunters who make a name for themselves by casting out demons, and receive support from Western churches. Spiritual warfare is waged, perverting indigenous beliefs in the process, but the response isn’t to crack down on Christian churches, the response is to further demonize non-Christian traditions.

Writers like Kerby and Howse aren’t stupid, they know their assertions will have reverberations beyond the page or computer screen. But will they be willing to take responsibility if their words spark a new moral panic? One that engulfs anyone who is suspected of practicing “witchcraft?” Somehow I don’t think they’ll have the courage or stomach for it, and will instead find someone (or something) to scapegoat. Anyone but themselves.

The moment when “witch-hunts” over there come home to roost on our doorsteps is now. How Pagans react will be very important in how this issue plays out. We must resist at all costs the urge to fall into Howse’s trap and create a “two kinds of witchcraft” split on ethnic lines, and instead build a response that holds fear-mongering churches and writers responsible while creating new coalitions between Pagans and practitioners of African diasporic and traditional faiths. We must not let moral panics break out against adherents of Santeria, Palo, Vodou, or smaller groups, while we try to pretend there’s no connections or overlap between these traditions and modern Pagan faiths. The response to fear and growing hysteria is not to bury our heads, or isolate ourselves, but to show that we won’t sit quietly in the corner while our spiritual cousins are demonized, hoping they won’t turn their attention to us.

Among Pagans, the rallying cry used to be “Never Again the Burning Times,” calling to a distant, sometimes romanticized, past. Perhaps instead we should say “Never Again the Panics,” and use our very real experiences with the Satanic Panics of the 1980s and 90s as an instructional on how to fight these new attempts to “other” belief systems and groups most people don’t understand. The answer to exorcism-related violence and death isn’t to find a single scapegoat, but to instead ensure that education and enforcement are allowed to spread.

A good news blogger will often try to spot trends and underlying issues in the stories of the day, using the strengths of the format to make links, provide more depth, and uncover nuances overlooked in the big headlines. However, sometimes a writer will commit the car-crash equivalent of same, using keywords and lazy cut-pasting to score pageviews for his or her employer. I believe the second scenario happened on Monday when Beliefnet Senior Editor Rob Kerby carelessly conflated the recent Cornwall controversy over teaching Paganism in religious education classes with the troubling trend of witch-hunts and witch-killings in places like Africa and the Middle East.

A fear of witchcraft? In our enlightened age? According to Reuters, the British news agency, a woman from the island of Sri Lanka off the southern tip of India has been charged with casting a spell on a 13-year-old Saudi girl during her family’s trip to a shopping mall. [...]  In Cornwall, England, the local council is defending its decision to include teaching children about witchcraft in religious education lessons. The Cornwall Council says that from the age of five, children should begin learning about pagan sites like Stonehenge and at the age of 11, pupils can begin exploring “modern paganism and its importance for many in Cornwall.” Critics say the council is offering “witchcraft lessons.” Witchcraft? Seriously? The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund – UNICEF – says that tens of thousands of children in Africa each year are tortured and killed because of witchcraft. Blame is divided between local witchdoctors and Pentecostal churches that have led opposition to the witchdoctors.”

The whole thing is such a thematic mess that I really don’t know where to begin. Let’s start with the fact that he puts the religious police crackdown on “sorcery” in Saudi Arabia, and African witch-hunting,  in the same category as Cornwall making the teaching of modern Pagan religions an option in religious education courses, then veers into Harry Potter!

“In the west, witchcraft is trivialized with children’s books such as Harry Potter and Disney movies and TV shows that present it as harmless. However, the Vatican has called on African authorities to ban sorcery with rigid laws.”

Then, after careening back into stories on witch-hunting in Africa, he turns to instances of African immigrants in the UK abusing and killing children in the name of witchcraft, and somehow links this back to the Cornwall story!

“In 2005, Sita Kisanga was found guilty of torturing an eight-year-old in London, believing the girl to have kindoki. She told the court that, “Kindoki is something you have to be scared of because in our culture kindoki can kill and destroy your life completely.” But officials in Cornwall, England, say there’s nothing to fear. [...] It seems that the politically correct Cornwall Council regards Christianity as no better than any other superstition.”

This spectacular exercise in lazy slander is capped by a lengthy quotation from  Catholic columnist Christina Odone, whose anti-Pagan screed I highlighted on this blog.

“God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

That’s how Kerby ends it, with that direct quote from Odone. I have seen stupid and bad reporting on modern Pagan religions before, but this mish-mash of different issues takes the cake. It gives the headline “what can the Third World teach the civilized world about witchcraft” a decidedly sinister ring. What, exactly, can the “Third World” teach us about witchcraft? That it should be outlawed, that witches should be hunted and killed? That kids shouldn’t read Harry Potter because witchcraft is serious business in Saudi Arabia? What?

One could easily do a paragraph-by-paragraph fisking of this piece, pointing out all the places where this story runs off the rails, but instead let me make a few simple points that Kerby doesn’t make in this bizarre “story.”

1. Sorcery persecutions in the Middle East are not the same phenomenon as witch-hunting in African nations. Both result in the killing of “witches,” but have different motivations and underlying causes.

2. Modern Pagan and religious Witchcraft traditions aren’t “trivializing” the practice of witchcraft, they are operating under a completely different cultural context and understanding of the term and its practice. Further, modern Pagans exist in the Middle East, and South Africa, places where witch-persecutions are happening. They take this problem very seriously indeed, and Pagans have even been seen as a possible solution in the problem of witch-hunting in India. To claim our faiths are “trivializing” witchraft is a slur, and an ignorant one.

3. If Mr. Kerby truly cared about witch-killings he should look into how Christian missionaries in Africa helped make them possible. Evangelical Christian academics say that indigenous ideas and reactions to “witchcraft” and malefic magic have been “Christianized” (their term), creating deadly consequences the missionaries could not (or would not) understand. I think Western funding of witch-hunters is doing far more damage than Wiccans practicing their religion.

4. Every culture has stories, folktales, and fantasy version of magic and witchcraft. To say their modern equivalent, Harry Potter, have somehow “trivialized” matters in the Third World is absurd.

5. The Cornwall “teaching Paganism” story was a tabloid sensationalist mess that distorted the facts in order to sell papers. That it is conflated with witch-killings in the UK is simply insane. No, worse than that, it is a deliberate smear.

That this patch-work monstrosity of an article exists at Beliefnet, who employs a Pagan blogger, one who co-wrote a book on Pagan-Christian dialog, and could have easily clarified many of the mistakes and misconceptions at work in Kerby’s piece, damns this exercise in unfounded conflation even further. If Beliefnet had an ounce of editorial conscience they would pull this abomination immediately, or at least not spotlight it as “news.” Then again, if Kerby is a “Senior Editor” maybe the lunatics are running the asylum at Beliefnet.

Last week I deconstructed the Daily Mail’s sensationalist assertions regarding the teaching of Paganism in British religious education courses, specifically in Cornwall. I pointed out that there is no hard-and-fast mandate requiring schools to insert Pagan religions into their curriculum, and that the RE advisory council is exactly that, advisory. This didn’t stop conservative Catholic columnist Christina Odone from flying off the rails, using the story as a jumping-off point to rail against any who dare place non-Christian faiths on equal ground with Christianity.

“God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

So with the discourse on this non-event having sunk about as low as it could go, it was time for the journalistic grown-ups at the BBC to step in and set things to rights.

Sue Green, director of education, said Cornwall’s heritage was “quite unique” and must be celebrated. The director said the syllabus suggested if there was an important religious aspect of beliefs such as Paganism, teachers should “explore it”. “We must celebrate the spiritual and religious heritage for our children.” Ms Green said: “For many of our schools there will be children who come from Pagan families and we wouldn’t want those children to feel marginalised.” But she added, that “no school is being told to teach about Paganism”.

It should be noted that Sue Green is director of education for the Anglican Diocese of Truro, which serves Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, so not exactly a shill for the powerful (and largely imaginary) Cornwall Pagan lobby. Nor is Green the only prominent Cornish Christian to speak up in defense of the curriculum guidelines, a local paper in Cornwall interviews the Rev Mike Coles, pastor of Falmouth Evangelical Church, and chairman of Cornwall’s advisory body for religious education, about the council’s recommendations.

“It seems right to develop a distinctively Cornish element that included the early Celtic saints, the influence of John Wesley, and the history of Truro Cathedral, as well as the significance of pre-Christian sites.”

Rev. Coles is a conservative Baptist, again, not exactly a “rah rah Paganism” kind of guy. That paper also speaks with David Hampshire, RE adviser for Cornwall, who notes that the “option” (notice the word option and not “mandate”) was developed “in order to develop a ‘Curriculum Kernewek’ (Cornish curriculum),” and that Paganism would “not be a major feature” of the curriculum. Thus, yet another controversy constructed by The Daily Mail is laid to bed, though I’m sure critics will once again lash out at the BBC for being too “Pagan friendly” for daring to accurately report the news.

In a final note, only one news outlet bothered to get a statement from the local branch of the Pagan Federation, and that was the Huffington Post UK.

“Fiona MacDonald, co-ordinator of Cornwall’s Pagan Federation, said the group welcomed the decision to include Paganism on the curriculum. “We have been campaigning for schools to introduce it for the past 10 years,” she told The Huffington Post UK. “It is not a question of teaching children Paganism, rather teaching children about Paganism. “We are just normal human beings with different ideas,” she added.”

So here’s to HuffPo UK for actually asking local Pagans what they think about a story that affects their lives. It’s sad that they were the only ones to do so.

So, to wrap up, an advisory RE curriculum is advisory, not mandatory, local Christians and Pagans don’t seem to have a problem with the RE curriculum, children are not being indoctrinated by Pagans, and the Daily Mail is a terrible way to get your journalism and you should really stop reading and linking to it.

Here are some updates on stories The Wild Hunt has reported on previously.

Teaching Paganism in British Schools: On Sunday I deconstructed the sensationalist Daily Mail’s assertions regarding the teaching of Paganism in British religious education courses, specifically in Cornwall. I pointed out that there is no hard-and-fast mandate requiring schools to insert Pagan religions into their curriculum, and that the RE advisory council is exactly that, advisory. Still, why let facts and reason get in the way of a good rant? That’s seems to be the position of conservative Catholic columnist Christina Odone, who uses the story as a jumping-off point to rail against any who dare place non-Christian faiths on equal ground with Christianity.

Cristina Odone, not a fan of Pagans. Photo: STEPHEN SHEPHERD

Cristina Odone, not a fan of Pagans. Photo: STEPHEN SHEPHERD

“God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

How long indeed! It seems that individuals like Odone are all for pluralism when it’s the other groups being tolerant and inclusive, but watch the knives come out when Christians are asked to make a bit of room to allow differing views. You know things have gone off the rails when a columnist makes The Daily Mail seem restrained by comparison (heck, even The Christian Post simply rewrites The Daily Mail’s article with no further editorializing).

The Problem With Passive Distribution: Last week I reported on the latest developments regarding the Buncombe County School Board in North Carolina’s policy regarding religion in its schools. The new policy passed at that meeting was the culmination of months of activism that began when North Carolina Pagan Ginger Strivelli challenged her child’s school’s policy regarding the distribution of religious materials. However, the larger question about the distribution of religious materials by non-student groups was tabled until next year, with talk of a religion fair of sorts where local churches could distribute literature. Now, advocacy group Americans United weighs in on that idea, warning the school board to tread carefully.

Can we really expect that future incidents of favoritism in distribution would not occur? What would happen if a Muslim group tried to drop off Korans, or Hindus left the Bhagavad Gita? Would local residents and the school board be open to letting impressionable minds read literature from minority faiths or anti-religion groups? There is absolutely no need to allow outside organizations to engage in “passive distribution” of materials at public schools, plus one would like to think that the school board has better things to do with its time than deciding whether or not a copy of the Satanic Bible is appropriate for students. [...] Getting religious materials into student hands is simply not a void that public schools should fill.”

Local activists have noted that constant vigilance will be needed to make sure schools don’t seek out loopholes to their new rules, or try to create an unfair distribution policy once the glare of national attention is off of them. For more on the school board’s new policy, check out the two-part post from local Pagan activist Byron Ballard. She wisely notes that “we won’t be resting on our laurels but we will take a breather and figure out the next steps. Because it ain’t over. Not by a long shot.”

A Brief Update on the “Occult” Library Filtering Case: Back in January I reported on a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri against the Salem Public Library, accusing the institution of  unconstitutionally blocking access to websites dealing with minority religions, and “improperly classifying them as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal.’” I’ve taken a keen interest in this case as I believe there shouldn’t be an option to block the sites of minority religions for institutions receiving federal funds, and no library committed to free expression should enable such a filter if provided. Since my initial report there hasn’t been much word as the case slowly worked its way towards trial, though Religion Clause does have a brief update on the city of Salem, Missouri being dismissed from the lawsuit.

“…a Missouri federal district court dismissed as to one defendant a free expression and and Establishment Clause challenge to the Internet filtering policies of the Salem, Missouri public library.  Plaintiff, who was attempting to conduct research on Native American spirituality and on the Wiccan Church claimed that the library’s policy of blocking religious websites categorized as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal skills’ while allowing access to the websites of more mainstream religions” was a content and viewpoint-based restriction on speech and has the effect favoring one religious viewpoint over another in violation of the Establishment Clause. The court dismissed the city as a defendant finding that the city retained no control or oversight over the library that was governed by a separate Library Board. The suit however will move forward against the Library Board and the library’s director.”

So not much has changed other than the city itself being removed from the case. I posted this update because I want to keep this story, which I think is very important, fresh in our minds. The results of this case could have far-reaching implications for adherents to Pagan and minority faiths looking for information in federally-funded institutions, and may even change the Internet filtering industry itself. Once the trial starts, or there’s more information to be shared, you’ll find it here. Oh, there is one other thing, the Library Board did file a response in March, which you can find here. They, naturally, deny all the allegations (seriously, “deny each and every allegation” is repeated at length).

Spotlight on Project Conversion (Spoiler: He Didn’t Actually Convert): Amanda Greene writes a profile for the Religion News Service (RNS) on Andrew Bowen’s Project Conversion, which I’ve mentioned a couple times previously here at The Wild Hunt. The goal, “convert” to 12 faiths in 12 months, including Wicca, and share what he’s learned. The RNS piece constructs the story as a personal journey through tragedy (his wife’s ectopic pregnancy that had to be aborted), the 12 religions were each there to help him “find faith in humanity.”

Andrew Bowen as a Wiccan.

Andrew Bowen as a Wiccan.

“…the 29-year-old Lumberton resident doesn’t call himself by any of the 12 faiths he practiced for a month at a time last year [...] It was an obsession – his personal intervention. [...] Bowen was one of the best students of Wicca Greenville resident Melissa Barnhurst has had. “He gave it a lot more than some students who’ve come to me wanting to become Wiccan,” she said. Meanwhile, his wife worked as a labor and delivery nurse at a local hospital. Things were hard financially, at times, because Bowen wasn’t working.”

Interestingly, this personal journey isn’t even referenced in the “about” page of Project Conversion, or his bio, which claims that “theology is a playground” to Bowen. Project Conversion caused some controversy in the Pagan community for what was seen as a too-blithe tourism through the Wiccan faith, nor did his account of an experience he had with some from-the-book “shamanism” he engaged with in 2003, do much to reassure folks. Bowen mentions in his Paganism wrap-up post the “firestorm of criticism” he received, and how he managed to rise above it all and find the true meaning of Wicca. In a sense, Bowen is just another “embedded” journalist, tasting our wares, and passing his judgment from a limited engagement. Very few such arrangements ever end up with the writer or journalist converting, but does lead them to have stories to tell at parties about that time they did a Pagan ritual.

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

Muck-raking (and hugely successful) British tabloid The Daily Mail reports on the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education’s (SACRE) syllabus for schools in Cornwall, saying that it encourages the teaching of modern Paganism alongside other religions (sorry, I still don’t link directly to them).

The Daily Mail: Your source for sensationalism on Paganism.

The Daily Mail: Your source for sensationalism on Paganism.

“Cornwall Council has told its schools that pagan beliefs, which include witchcraft, druidism and the worship of ancient gods such as Thor, should be taught alongside Christianity, Islam and Judaism, the Daily Mail reported. The requirements are spelled out in an agreed syllabus drawn up by Cornwall’s RE advisory group. It says that from the age of five, children should begin learning about standing stones, such as Stonehenge. At the age of 11, pupils can begin exploring “modern paganism and its importance for many in Cornwall.” The syllabus adds that areas of study should include “the importance of pre-Christian sites for modern pagans.” An accompanying guide says that pupils should “understand the basic beliefs” of paganism and suggests children could discuss the difficulties a practising pagan pupil might face in school.”

Something about this story tickled my memory, so I did a quick search of my archives and found a very similar story from 2010 about religious education in Lincolnshire County (also reported on by The Daily Mail). Beyond the misleading headline, “Schools get go-ahead to teach Paganism alongside major religions,” you find a quote from the Assistant Director of Children’s Services making it clear that there is  “no direct guidance about whether [Paganism] should be included in the school curriculum and it is left to individual schools to make a decision about whether to include it.”

“So, in essence, individual schools could, if they wanted to, teach Paganism alongside other faiths. But it isn’t a mandate from on high, nor are there any concrete plans reported from any school to start including Paganism. It’s a story about a possibility, one that seems inspired by the recent Charity Commission approval of The Druid Network‘s application for religious charity status (both articles mention it).”

So how about this new story? Are schools in Cornwall mandating the teaching of Paganism? Well, first off, before we even read the syllabus, you should know that advisory councils are, well, advisory.

“The agreed syllabus is a statutory document for Cornwall LA community, trust, foundation and controlled schools.  It can be adopted by aided schools, academies and free schools with the consent of their governing bodies or board of directors to support the delivery of the syllabusAgreed syllabus implementation booklet sets out how the syllabus may be implemented, but it is for schools to implement the syllabus, as they decide, as long as they are meeting the statutory requirement.  The booklet should not be used as a definitive guide to how schools must use the syllabus.”

So lets go to the posted syllabus itself. Here’s the first thing it says about Paganism.

“It is clear that Christianity should predominate at each key stage and should feature in no less than 60% of the religious education taught. The other religious traditions should occupy no more than 40% of RE time over the key stage. [...] At times schools may wish to teach religions not in their key stage or not in the syllabus at all. This teaching should be clearly identified in the scheme of work, it must be for a specified amount of time and it may occur in an academic year where Christianity and one other religion are already being delivered. An example of this in the past has been the desire to teach primary aged pupils about modern Paganism where there are the children of Pagan parents at the school. Schools are free to do this but must be clear about two things: 1. that the teaching of such a religious tradition is not at detriment to the programme of study and is at a level which clearly links attainment to the expectations of the syllabus; 2. that the school has clear justification for doing so based on evidence from the school. It should not be the case that teachers focus on religions that they feel most comfortable with or that appear to be more relevant in their estimation.”

So not exactly a “rah, rah, let us teach Paganism to children” moment.  Let’s go to the second and only other mention in the main syllabus.

“Cornwall as a place of spiritual inquiry: The development of modern Paganism and its importance for many in Cornwall. The importance of pre-Christian sites for modern Pagans. How modern Paganism is diverse and how this diversity is expressed in Cornwall.”

That’s it. A mere mention, and dwarfed by every other religious tradition mentioned. I would be surprised if this lead to even a full day in any British school on modern Paganism. So fantasies of Miss Rose teaching about phallic symbols and the rites of May Day are just that, fantasies.

This story is hung around the idea that a school might dare to take the advice of SACRE and  include Paganism alongside other British religions, and The Daily Mail quotes the Christian Institute for reaction who (naturally) call it “faddish” and “political correctness.” They apparently lost the number for the local Pagan Federation chapter.

If a serious journalistic resource covered this story they might give more than a soundbite to the local SACRE members, or interviewed some Pagans, or perhaps spoke with historian Ronald Huton, who’s hosting an upcoming documentary about how Wicca is a religion born in Britain and given to the world. Why would a responsible British religious education class not spend at least a few minutes on that subject? Or on the Charity Commission approval of The Druid Network‘s application for religious charity status, and the long history of Druidry/Druidism in the British Isles? Modern Paganism and esoteric religion has been interwoven with British history for generations now, acknowledging that isn’t “political correctness.” That the mere possibility of inclusion sparks tabloid headlines, one wonders what will happen when a school actually follows through on the council’s advice and includes Paganism in a religion education class.

[The following is a guest post by Dr. Amy Hale. Dr. Hale is an anthropologist specializing in contemporary Celtic cultures, with an emphasis on modern Cornwall and contemporary Esoteric culture and history.]

On Saturday May 14, the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, celebrated 60 years of existence with a day of lectures, culminating with the launch of the new book The Museum of Witchcraft: A Magical History. The day of talks, titled “Guardians of Magic” featured lectures about three key, yet sometimes poorly recognized, figures in 20th century witchcraft and magical culture. The day kicked off with Kerriann Godwin and Joyce Froome presenting “Cecil Williamson-Life of an Occultist” an engaging profile of the man who founded the Museum of Witchcraft in 1951 on the Isle of Man. This was followed by Jason Semmens’ presentation on the life of William Paynter, a Cornish folklorist of the mid 20th century who collected tales and artifacts related to witchcraft and cunning folk. I finished the day with an illustrated lecture on the life of Surrealist and esoteric artist Ithell Colquhoun, whose life in Cornwall formed the background for much of her art and magical practice. The day closed with a launch of the volume, The Museum of Witchcraft: A Magical History which contains essays, poems and reflections of many prominent vistors throughout the years. For anyone wanting to purchase this fine, illustrated book, details can be found on the website of the Occult Art Company.

Kerriann Godwin and Joyce Froome. Photo by Sam Webster.

In so many ways, the Museum of Witchcraft’s success is a remarkable achievement, and testimony to the not only the enduring interest in the history of Witchcraft, but also to the robustness of contemporary witchcraft and Paganism. This history of the museum itself is quite amazing. In 1951 Naval officer and occult enthusiast Cecil Willamson opened his first Museum of Magic and Witchcraft on the Isle of Man, stocking it with exhibits relating to historical witchcraft (some of which were probably considered rather daring and outrageous for the time) and also displaying artifacts reportedly in use by British cunning folk. The dynamic and outspoken Williamson befriended Gerald Gardner to assist him, having him on site as the museum’s resident witch, but unsurprisingly, the relationship became acrimonious, and in 1952 Williamson sold his museum building to Gardner, and moved on, finally settling in Cornwall in 1960. What struck me during the day’s festivities is that while of course Gerald Gardner has his historical position within modern witchcraft secured, Williamson is much less well known, despite being a contemporary of Gardner. Williamson did not found a religion, but he worked in that interesting historical space in the 20th century documenting and displaying traditional folk practices while the revival and reframing of witchcraft into a new religious context was occurring. That project deserves a fair bit of recognition.

Amy Hale. Photo by Sam Webster.

Additionally, for a small, independent museum to have flourished in such a remote location in Cornwall for 50 years, is really quite an accomplishment. Cornwall has a reputation for being rather otherworldly, so is well suited for such an institution. It has an interesting history of not only local healers and cunning folk, but the region has attracted Pagans and other more magical practitioners since the early 20th century. When Graham King took over the museum in 1996, he genuinely built on Williamson’s legacy, and, uncompromisingly, in my view, created an educational center devoted to honoring and explaining the traditions and practices of a range of modern Pagan practitioners. Graham and his team have preserved a magnificent resource for the entire Pagan community. If you have not paid it a visit, put it on your bucket list.