Archives For entheogens

Just a few quick news notes for you on this Tuesday.

Margot Alder on Witchcraft, Cults, and Space Travel: Margot Adler, NPR correspondent and author of the seminal 1979 book “Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America”, talks to the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado about her life and work in advance of her presentations at the 64th Annual Conference on World Affairs. Of special interest to my Pagan readers will be the story of how she landed the book deal that eventually lead to “Drawing Down the Moon.”

Margot Adler

Margot Adler

“That happened by a complete fluke, way back in 1974. I had sort of a loser boyfriend. He took me to meet his literary agent in a pub. The woman asked me, ‘What do you do?’ I’ve probably had less than a dozen psychic experiences, but I heard a voice in my head say, ‘You are standing on a nexus point in the universe. What you do now will change your life forever.’ Because of that voice, I said, ‘I’m involved in witchcraft.’ Her eyes got really big. She said, ‘Call me in two weeks.’ She had just left an agency and was looking for clients. She showed me how to write a book proposal. I’d never thought of writing a book. The written word scared me because it’s so eternal.”

She also talks about where she agrees with Newt Gingrich (space travel), the most interesting stories she’s been covering for NPR lately, and “looking at religion from completely outside ourselves.” The Conference on World Affairs is currently underway, and continues through Friday. Her two presentations are “What is a Cult,” and “The Lure of Interstellar Travel,” both being given today.

A Step Forward for Marijuana as a Sacrament: In what could a groundbreaking ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned a lower court ruling against the Oklevueha Native American Church of Hawaii, allowing an action to prevent enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act against them to go forward.

Michael Rex "Raging Bear" Mooney, right, with members of the Oklevueha Native American Church.

Michael Rex "Raging Bear" Mooney, right, with members of the Oklevueha Native American Church.

“Plaintiffs need not allege a threat of future prosecution because the statute has already been enforced against them. When the Government seized Plaintiffs’ marijuana pursuant to the CSA, a definite and concrete dispute regarding the lawfulness of that seizure came into existence.”

The court also ruled that the church does not need to apply to the DEA first for an exemption, though it did rule in the government’s favor by saying the seized marijuana doesn’t have to be returned or compensated for. You can read more about this case, here, and here. So far, there have been only two instances where entheogens used in a religious context have been able to win legal protection (peyote for Native American ceremonial purposes, and  ayahuasca by the União do Vegetal). If the Oklevueha Native American Church (ONAC) is able to take this to the Supreme Court and win a religious exemption, and injunction against future prosecution, it could throw open the door to religious groups using marijuana as a sacrament. The Rastafari are an obvious example, but any group that is able to show a sincere use may also be able win exemptions. In my mind, legal entheogens are an inevitable eventuality of these cases, the question is not “if” but “when.”

How Far Does Free Speech and Religious Freedom Stretch in Cases of Alleged Fraud? Speaking of possibly momentous instances of litigation, last year several members of the Roma Gypsy Marks family were charged by the federal government with operating an “advance fee scheme,” allegedly bilking more than a dozen victims out of over 40 million dollars. One of the clients/victims was famous romance author Jude Deveraux, who paid the family $20 million over 17 years, saying she was threatened by the family, and was near suicide before law enforcement stepped in. Now, the Marks’ defense team is saying their actions were/are protected religious practices, and that fortune-telling is protected speech.

The federal investigation was code-named "Crystal Ball."

The federal investigation was code-named "Crystal Ball."

“Lawyers have argued in court papers that the family members had a constitutionally protected right to practice fortunetelling and spiritual healing because it is a part of their religious belief system and fortunetelling is legally considered to be free speech. [...] Attorney Michael Gottlieb, who wrote the 24-page legal document about religious rights, argued that his client, Nancy Marks, 42, of Fort Lauderdale and New York City, did nothing but try to help people, in line with her personal spiritual beliefs. [...] “Nancy Marks’ conduct is rooted in her religion and spirituality,” Gottlieb wrote. “Based upon this prosecution, the defendant has lost her livelihood and has been unable to make a living using her historical religious and spiritual gifts.” [...] The legal argument spells out some widely-held Romani beliefs but also draws comparisons with legal rulings about the rights of people who are Amish, Wiccans, Krishnas, Mormons, Catholics and Jews.”

Leaving aside the issue of the Marks’ guilt or innocence, the ultimate verdict in this case could have far-sweeping ramifications, especially if judges consider the religion question. Whether or not fortune telling can be a protected religious practice is still very much up in air, judicially speaking. In 2010 the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that fortune telling and related services are protected speech, and in 2008 a federal judge tossed out a fortune telling ban in Livingston Parish, Louisiana. However, in a 2011 case, a Virginia judge ruled that divination wasn’t the same thing as religious counselling. The case here, involving the federal government, could set nationwide precedent for where the line gets drawn between exploitation and religious freedom. So this is one to keep your eyes on. For more on the extended Marks clan, check out the documentary “American Gypsy.”

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

Entheogens, psychoactive substances used in “a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context,” once popularly known as “psychedelics,” are often sensationalized, misunderstood, and are usually banned from being used legally. Despite the United State’s policy of religious freedom, there are only two instances where entheogens have been able to win legal protection (peyote for Native American ceremonial purposes, and  ayahuasca by the União do Vegetal). So any attempts to demystify and contextualize their use to a broad audience can only help change the tone of the conversation. Enter Hamilton Morris, and his Vice.com web series “Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia,” profiled on Friday by the New York Times.

Hamilton Morris

Hamilton Morris

“Through documentary footage “Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia” tries to expand viewers’ knowledge of drugs and temper a subject that can be romanticized. Episodes run as shorts or sometimes as multipart serials, chronicling Mr. Morris’s travels, obsessions and encounters with figures on the fringe of culture. Unlike his father, who has an understated off-screen presence, Mr. Morris is in front of the camera as interviewer and host. His narration is filled with monologues on sub-subcultures and scientific evidence.

His work is driven by research, not by aesthetics or any filmic lineage. In most episodes the stories that emerge feel exploratory, with failures and complications incorporated, not hidden, in the final edit. Mr. Morris spent several miserable nights in a Brazilian village waiting for a frog that didn’t arrive and in Reykjavik discovering that the liberty cap mushrooms he planned to ingest were out of season. It’s a raw, earnest approach used across much of Vice’s programming, including the widely viewed series, “The Vice Guide to Travel.”

Famed entheogen guide Erowid gets a nod in the NYT article, and most interestingly, notes that Morris will “depart from drugs entirely” in future episodes, “widening the purview to include all the ways people alter consciousness.” This seems like an important step, because it puts entheogens in the context of just being one of many different tools used to change our consciousness and achieve altered states.

I personally know many modern Pagans who use, or have used, entheogens within a ritual context. It’s a small but expanding population within our communities, though most still prefer to avoid potential entanglements with the law, and use legal methods of attaining an altered state. That said, the responsible use of these substances within a religious context should be allowed, and the ongoing harassment of practitioners who have fought hard for legal recognition needs to end. In my mind, legal entheogens are an inevitable eventuality, the question is not “if” but “when.” This article, and Hamilton’s work, helps to change perceptions and misconceptions for when that day arrives.

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

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

Top Story: For the third time in recent memory a Canadian citizen has been charged with the obscure ordinance against “pretending to practice witchcraft”. The first concerned Vishwantee Persaud in late 2009 who bilked several people, including a lawyer, out of thousands of dollars, the second, from April of this year, was against Batura Draame of Toronto. Now a third case, involving Brampton resident Yogendra Pathak, has emerged.

“Police say Yogendra Pathak, 44 was “putting it out there that he had the ability to practice magic and by doing that he could solve people’s problems… for money.” … Police say they believe Mr. Pathak was operating for over a year and do not yet know how many people have been conned by his alleged scam. They are urging victims and anyone with information to come forward. Mr. Pathak is charged with fraud under $5,000 and pretending to practice witchcraft.”

Persaud, Draame, and Pathak were all charged under the fraud statutes so why the witchcraft charge? Is it really necessary? Canadian author and philosophy professor Brendan Myers finds the law deeply problematic.

“The key word in the legislation is the word “pretending” (in subsections (a) and (c).) As pointed out to me by my friend in London via private correspondence: the word “pretending” here suggests that the State does not believe that witchcraft could be real: anyone who says they are practicing witchcraft is only pretending. That can potentially include those who say that they are practicing the religion. With this in mind, it’s not difficult to imagine a religiously conservative or puritan judge ruling that anyone who practices the religion of Wicca is “pretending” to practice witchcraft.

Our religious practices are already protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is part of our constitution and thus trumps the Criminal Code. But a lot will depend on the eye of the beholder here. It is not difficult to imagine a future government much more conservative than our present one, declaring that witchcraft and wicca is not a religion, and that anyone who practices it is “pretending”. Remember, it doesn’t matter if you think it’s a religion: it matters if the law thinks so. I do not know if any judicial precedents have established wicca and witchcraft as a religion in the eyes of the law. So I’ve written to a lawyer that I know, and I await his response.”

While not all Pagans think the law should be repealed, there is a grass-roots movement building to work for the law’s repeal. It should be stressed that all the accused perpetrators were caught and charged with existing laws against fraud, so why has this little-used witchcraft charge been dug up again? What real purpose does it serve other than to sensationalize, muddy the waters of religious freedom, and create potential problems for ethical practitioners of magic and witchcraft who happen to charge for various services? How long before an otherwise ethical magic-worker gets charged due to a vindictive former client? It doesn’t seem so far-fetched a scenario considering the recent frequency this law is getting invoked.

Christine O’Donnell’s Lesbian Paganism-Studying Sister: Andrew Sullivan points to a Mother Jones piece regarding the sister of Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, the Tea Party and Christian Right favorite who recently won an upset primary victory over the Republican party’s preferred candidate. Christine’s sister Jennie is publicly for many of the things O’Donnell is against (like gay marriage), yet is supporting her in her senate campaign. She’s also very different when it comes to religion.

“I have studied and practiced many therapeutic methods, as well as many different spiritual practices, such as; The Eastern Philosophies of Buddhism, Taoism, Sidha yoga with Brahma khumaris and other yoga practices for self realization. Western philosophies of Christianity, Science of mind, Course in miracles, Catholicism, Native American Spiritualities, Judaism, Muslim, Sufi, Ancient Alchemy of the Emerald Tablet, Metaphysics, Wicca, Pagan and many other world spiritualities.”

While it isn’t completely unusual for a family member to back a relative running for office who publicly works against their stated personal positions and interests on various issues, Sullivan wonders if the emergence of this sister might hurt O’Donnell’s standing with the Christians who supported her candidacy.

“Will the Christianist base support a candidate whose sister has studied Wicca and pagan spiritualities and supports marriage equality for gays and lesbians? Apparently, Jennie believes that much that has been written about her sister is untrue.”

It should be interesting to see how the campaign moves forward with this. Will they go big-tent and soften on some of O’Donnell’s past pronouncements on various social issues, sticking to the fiscal populism the Tea Party prefers? That seems to be the direction the political winds are currently blowing, but it remains to be seen if such a move is sustainable if it risks losing Christian voters who want/demand strong stands on social issues.

Witchcraft Worries Australia: A draft report on freedom of religion submitted to the Australian Human Rights Commission apparently ranks Witches as one of the groups that most worries other Australians according to The Age.

“Which groups of Australians most worry other Australians? Muslims, gays and – astonishingly – witches. That apparently anachronistic result appears in a survey of public submissions to a national inquiry into freedom of religion and belief in the 21st century, from which the draft report was submitted last week to the Australian Human Rights Commission … These views do not reflect mainstream opinion; it takes a certain passion and effort to make a detailed submission, so only those most involved or committed will do so. But they provide a fascinating window into contemporary concerns about religion.”

Some academics are concerned the results are dominated by conservative citizens, skewing the results towards the views of “elderly church leaders who happen to be male and anti-Muslim and gays and pagans and witches”. It remains to be seen what recommendations the Human Rights Commission can make from this draft that would please these respondents while ensuring the continued rights and freedoms of Pagan Australians.

A Look At Faeries Who Are Radical: The Texas LGBT publication Dallas Age profiles eclectic gay Pagan group the Radical Faeries. The article looks at their founding and history, but also notes the changes in attitude and inclusiveness they have gone through in recent years.

“But in more than 30 years of existence, the Radical Faeries have evolved — albeit gradually and with difficulty — towards embracing a more sexually diverse membership. Some Radical Faerie groups accept people of all genders and orientations with the idea that anyone who identifies as a faerie is one. However, many older members still require gatherings to be male-only and the issue of inclusion continues to be controversial. “As an oppressed people, gay men [have] had to overcome their own prejudices against women, bi, trans [and] intersex people,” notes Singleton, who at 28, is part of the younger generation of faeries.”

What role will the Radical Faeries play within the Pagan community as it becomes more open and inclusive? Will what was once a gay-male only tradition soon become something far larger and influential?

Fighting Utah Over Peyote Arrests: Religion Clause reports that the Oklevueha Native American Church has filed suit against the state of Utah in Federal Court to stop them from arresting and harassing church members for their use of Peyote.

“The lawsuit seeks to block state and federal law enforcement from arresting or bringing criminal charges against church members who “fear reprisal from both state and federal governments for openly practicing their religion,” court papers state. … The lawsuit was filed in Utah because since 1999, church members here say they have been harassed, arrested and prosecuted for using peyote, court papers say.”

This has been an ongoing issue in Utah, and one that will no doubt bring the issue of religious entheogens to the mainstream media once more. We’ll be paying attention to this case as it develops.

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

Top Story: The BBC reports that Athanassios Lerounis, a Greek national who was kidnapped by the Taliban  in Pakistan several months ago, has been freed. Lerounis’ kidnapping was thought to be a consequence of the Taliban increasingly targeting the Kalash in Pakistan, Indo-European pagans believed by some to be descended from a commingling of Alexander the Great’s army and local peoples, who have survived in predominantly Muslim areas thanks to living in remote valleys.

“His captors demanded the release of militants held by Pakistan in exchange for his freedom but officials say no militant exchange was made. “He has been released by the successful efforts of Pakistani security agencies,” Rahmatullah Wazir, the top administrative official in Chitral, told the BBC. The curator was living in the Kalash valley to pursue his interest in an ancient “lost tribe” when he was kidnapped by armed men on 7 September 2009.”

While Chitral officials claim that no ransom was paid, this assertion has been challenged by other media sources. Lerounis is much beloved by the Kalash people, whom he helped build a local heritage museum and medical facilities, while encouraging education opportunities. Inhabitants of the Kalasha valleys undertook rare mass demonstrations to secure his release. This international incident forced the government of Pakistan to pay more attention to the Kalash people, who are normally ignored, their relatively peaceful lifestyle increasing threatened by Taliban-Pakistan clashes in the nearby Swat valley.

The War on Herbs: While Americans are increasingly shifting their opinions concerning marijuana, especially for medical purposes, that hasn’t stopped some lawmakers in the Louisiana House of Representatives from attempting to regulate any plant that might get a kid (briefly) high. House Bill 173 will outlaw a number of herbs from being blended, smoked, or inhaled.

“HB173 would prohibit a number of plants from being blended and smoked or inhaled. The plants in question include mugwort, honeyweed, sacred lotus and dwarf skullcap.  Many of these plants are listed as ingredients in herbal incense products.”

Lawmakers will no doubt seek to prohibit spinning around really, really fast, masturbating, or any other activity that might alter a young person’s consciousness. One wonders if the St. John’s Wort-popping natural health community will rush to oppose the passage of this new law, or if they’ll lay low because it’s targeting head shops instead of Whole Foods. Not to engage in too much slippery-slope prognostication, but if we allow the government to ban the mixing and selling of some herbs, what’s to stop them from expanding further?

Handfasting on (Reality) Television: After the somewhat bizarre media uproar about two Pagan teenagers getting handfasted (with parental consent) in Australia last month, the couple, and the girl’s mother, have agreed to an exclusive deal with a local television station for coverage of the nuptials.

“A teenage couple set to wed this weekend in an ancient pagan ceremony have signed a deal with Channel 9’s A Current Affair program … Under the contract signed by Alex Stewart-Pole, 19, and Jenni Birch, 16, A Current Affair have exclusive rights to cover the handfasting ceremony.  Mum Sue Birch, a pagan high priestess, will perform the ceremony, and said on Tuesday that any media coverage of the wedding would have to be discussed with A Current Affair. She said the family would not receive payment under the contract. However, Mr Stewart-Pole said Nine had promised to give the couple ‘a wedding present’.”

A Current Affair tackles hard-hitting issues like diet pizza, bargain shopping, and kids who stab dogs, so this deal could really go either way for the couple. I’m hoping for sweet and innocuous, but you never know what will happen when mainstream media decides to cover Pagans. It’s part of the reason why I counsel against Pagans appearing on reality television, exploitative talk-shows, and man-bites-dog sensationalist “news magazines”. Always remember to read the fine print on any contract, and study the show you’re going on before hand.

Chuck Colson Continues to Hate on Pagans: I know this isn’t really going to  be”news” to anyone who’s familiar with the Watergate-criminal-turned-Christian crusader Chuck Colson, but he’s bad-mouthing Hinduism and modern Paganism in a recent editorial that making the rounds of various Christian publications. Using the isolated and tragic case of a Hindu priest in India sacrificing his family and himself as proof of a larger deficit in pagan belief systems.

“I want to emphasize that Hindus are among the most peace-loving people in the world. The actions of these people are by no means representative. What is representative, however, is their belief that worship largely consists in appeasing the deity. In order to obtain favor, the worshipper must offer the proper sacrifice. Get it wrong and your prayers aren’t answered. Or worse. This worldview is very similar to that of the ancient world into which Jesus became incarnate. The pagan gods were a fickle and demanding lot who demanded blood and abasement from their worshipers-and even then “answered” prayers only on a whim. This is why so many classical philosophers, like many of their Indian counterparts throughout history, were put off by popular religious practices. So they substituted an “unknown” god and an unknowable god … How ironic that we in the post-Christian West are exchanging belief in the “personal, benevolent God” of Christianity for a sanitized paganism. Whether it’s “new age” mumbo jumbo or Wicca for Dummies, we have forgotten the dread these beliefs caused our ancestors and the awful things it made them do.”

I’ll leave it to my ever-astute readers to bother with dismantling his anti-pagan arguments. Though no longer in favor at The White House now that Bush is out of office, Colson’s been busy in his ongoing hate-a-palooza by supporting anti-same-sex marriage initiatives and signing on to the Manhattan Declaration.

Goddess of the North Construction Starting: In a final note, work is beginning on the massive land sculpture entitled “Northumberlandia”, dubbed “The Goddess of the North” by the media.

“Work is to start on a giant sculpture of a naked woman which is to be carved into the Northumberland landscape. The “Goddess of the North” will be made from 1.5 million tonnes of earth from the Shotton mine, near Cramlington. It will stand 34 metres – 10 metres higher than the Angel of the North – and will be 400 metres long … designed by artist Charles Jencks, who is best known in the North East for his sculpture outside the Centre for Life in Newcastle. Mark Dowdall, environment and communities director of The Banks Group, said it was hoped the sculpture would attract an additional 200,000 visitors a year to Northumberland.”

Though I don’t like to repeat myself, I wonder if this new addition to Britain’s landscape will, in a few hundred years, be considered an “ancient” pre-Christian survival by the locals. It will also be interesting to see if the site will become a pilgrimage place for modern Pagans and Goddess-worshipers.

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

Many religions through the ages have used certain substances to acquire altered states of awareness/consciousness. When used responsibly and under certain controlled circumstances, various entheogenic substances are purported to allow communion with divine beings, travel to different planes of awareness, and the removal of certain ego traits that hinder the building of a tribal group-mind experience. While many tribal/indigenous groups around the world still engage is such practices, the use of such substances for religious purposes long fell out of favor in European-descended nations for a variety of religious, economic, and social reasons. Flash forward to the 1960s, and thanks to “psychedelic” pioneers like Timothy Leary the recreational use of entheogens and related hallucinogenics experienced a huge boom, prompting strict government control over their usage. These controls did contain exemptions for “magical and religious rites”, but only for pre-approved “small” and “clearly determined” groups.

With America’s war on (some) drugs still raging (not to mention a long history of villianizing drug-use), religious groups that want to obtain an exemption for the use of certain entheogens during rituals have faced an uphill battle. In 2006 the Supreme Court ruled that members of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal could legally import the herbs and plants needed to create the entheogenic brew ayahuasca for their rites. Now the syncretic practitioners of Santo Daime, who prepare a similar ayahuasca blend (what they call “Daime tea”) have won a court challenge in Oregon’s federal distric court to allow the importation of ingrediants necessary to make the brew. As commenter and expert witness Mark Kleiman points out, under the seemingly more tolerant Obama administration, this could lead to lower hurdles for religious groups to seek legal exemptions to use controlled substances during their rites.

“Now the new leadership at DoJ faces a question. The government can appeal the Oregon ruling and continue to fight the New Mexico case, and do the same with every religious body that comes forward to ask permission to used a controlled-substance sacrament. As a practical matter, that would mean that only well-financed churches had any chance of winning recognition; these are expensive cases, albeit the churches can recover their attorneys’ fees at the end of they win. Or the Attorney General could tell the DEA Administrator to draft, and publish in the Federal Register, a set of procedures and criteria to deal with such cases in the future. (The Supreme Court ruling makes it clear that RFRA provides ample statutory authority for issuing such regulations.) It’s an interesting test of Eric Holder’s skill, and I’ll be interested to see how he handles it.”

Kleiman seem particularly hopeful because Holder recently ordered the DEA to stop unwarranted raids on California’s medical marijuana dispensaries. Making many wonder if the slow decriminalization process for medical and recreational marijuana now under way in individual states will soon have approval (or at least non-interference) from the executive branch.

What does this all mean for modern Pagans? It means that we may soon see a time where individual Pagan faiths and traditions, if they so chose, could apply for an exemption to use a controlled substance (most likely an entheogen) during religious or magical rites. This will no doubt cause some amount of controversy if/when it emerges. While many Pagans have used controlled substances both recreationally and in a ritual context, many Pagan spokespersons since the early days have strived to present modern Pagans as law-abiding folk who absolutely reject illegal means to achieve altered states of consciousness. So expect this to be a big issue within our larger movement as laws become more permissive towards the religious use of controlled substances.

My semi-regular round-up of articles, essays, and opinions of note for discerning Pagans and Heathens.

Getting excited about Hellboy II yet? I sure am! The film, directed and co-written by “Pan’s Labyrinth” director Guillermo del Toro, is chock-full of pagan-friendly elements. To whet your appetite for the July 11th release date, an animated comic prologue has been released.

For more pre-release fun, check out the multiple trailers at the Apple site. You might also want to read some advance reviews from Variety, Hollywood Reporter, and Cinematical.

While I’m on the subject of movie news, a recent Virgin Media survey places “The Wicker Man” in the top ten best British films of all time.

“Four Weddings And A Funeral has been named best British film of all time in a survey out yesterday. The 1994 romantic comedy just beat Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, and made a star of Hugh Grant, who comes fourth in the Best Actor poll. Trainspotting, Casino Royale, starring Daniel Craig as James Bond, Guy Ritchie’s Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, Lawrence Of Arabia, Withnail And I, Atonement, The Wicker Man and Get Carter completed the top 10 in the Virgin Media survey.”

Speaking of “The Wicker Man”, star Christopher Lee has lashed out in the press about ageism in the film industry after his role in the Scottish movie “Stone of Destiny” was edited out.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama seems to embody the religious hopes and fears of America. He’s been called a secret Muslim, spurred claims that he might be the messiah, or a perhaps a “light worker”, pissed off James Dobson, gained the support of a Pagan delegate (and had supposed Pagan ties used against him), and was formally adopted into the Crow Indian Nation. Now Hindus think he might be one of them.


Spot the Monkey God!

“If charges of being a “secret Muslim” weren’t enough, Barack Obama may now need to prove he’s not a secret Hindu as well. According to the Times of India, a group of supporters in New Delhi have sent Obama a two-foot, gold-plated statue of the monkey god Hanuman. According to Indian politician Brijmohan Bhama, “Obama has deep faith in Lord Hanuman and that is why we are presenting an idol of Hanuman to him.” The apparent source of this pronouncement of Obama’s newly-discovered faith is this photo from Time magazine, which shows a collection of lucky charms Obama carries with him, including a small Hanuman charm.”

What better way to debunk “secret Muslim” smears than to have the Hindus claim you! Of course Obama is actually a liberal Christian, but this swirl of activity proves just how far America has moved from its “Christian” identity.

The Miami Herald has put out a very nice story about the shrine of la Ermita de La Caridad, a place where Cuban refugees come for solace and to pray. Though technically a Catholic shrine, it also attracts followers of Santeria who see la Caridad as a manifestation of Ochun.

“At the northern end of the seawall, where historic Vizcaya serves as a foreground to the glossy towers of Brickell Avenue, a stone Eleggua (the Santeria god known as the opener of paths) with cowrie-shell eyes gazes up toward the water’s surface. At the southern end, near Mercy Hospital, someone’s Santeria necklaces cling to a rock, a school of little silver fish brushing by the yellow and amber beads for Ochun, the blue and white ones for Yemaya … As Catholic as the shrine is, many of the devoted who come here are also followers of Santeria. In the religious syncretism of Cuba, la Caridad, an apparition of the Virgin Mary, is also called Ochun, one of the orishas, the Santeria gods. “A sanctuary is precisely a place where the Catholic religion makes contact with el pueblo,” Roman says. “We know there are people who perform rituals out there by the seawall. But they do it very respectfully. They don’t let us see it.”

A touching and balanced story about how culture and shared experience can sometimes overcome the barriers erected by religion.

In a final note, Religion Clause links to a story about how legal peyote used for religious purposes by Native Americans is becoming increasingly scarce due to local land being leased to oil speculators.

“South Texas property owners have realized there is profit in leasing their land as oil or hunting preserves. Suddenly, the small pittances peyoteros could pay for access didn’t seem worth it. “Now, it’s getting to where the ranchers don’t want to give permission for us to look on their land,” he said. “You have to keep going back to the same patches and waiting for it to grow again.” This presents a conundrum. If Morales and his colleagues keep revisiting the same patches, the cactus doesn’t have enough time to re-grow. Repeated overharvesting also affects the potency of the plant, said Martin Terry, an assistant professor of biology at Sul Ross University in Alpine. “If the demand continues to increase – even slowly – and the supply continues to decrease, then the amount available to the church will just keep continuing to decrease,” he said.”

Religious prohibitions prevent greenhouse-grown peyote, and trips to Mexico, where the cactus is still plentiful, is wrought with legal entanglements. With only a few legal peyoteros left, and available land dwindling, it remains to be seen if the Native American Church can find a way to solve this problem.

That is all I have for now, have a great day!

Some great Pagan and Pagan-friendly content has been popping up lately in the blogosphere, so I thought I would take some time to highlight some posts that I found particularly interesting.

To start off, Mollie at Get Religion takes a look at recent press coverage concerning the entheogenic plant ayahuasca, and the surge in popularity of shamanistic therapy sessions among upper-class suburbanites in Southern California.

“Piccalo explains that ayahuasca, meaning “vine of the soul” has been used for hundreds of years or more by tribes in Central and South America. In countries where it is legal, pilgrims flock to ceremonies. She notes that Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs introduced the plant concoction to pop culture in the 1960s but that it has remained a largely underground phenomenon – until now. A community shepherded by shamans is emerging in the United States … Unfortunately, the religious component of ayahuasca isn’t really explored. Most of the piece deals with Truenos, who comes off more Elmer Gantry than devout believer. He has a shady past and can’t answer Piccalo’s questions in a straightforward manner. In an area where New Age practitioners have found fertile ground for preying on the wealthy, he seems perfectly Californian.”

Mollie and I both share the sentiment that journalists should further explore the religious ties to this plant and its usage. You can read the original Los Angeles Times article, here.

An the artistic front, classics professor Mary Beard reports on the opening of a new show of neo-classical sculpture at Tate Britain called “The Return of the Gods”.

“Highlight of the show, but not for me (I actually think it’s a bit irritating), is Canova’s Three Graces. I decided to talk about some of the less well known pieces. The aim was to explain why what may look like slightly insipid white marble, recreating some serenely voluptuous male and female flesh, is actually a lot cleverer and a lot more intellectually engaged with the Greco-Roman sources on which it is based than most people ever imagine.”

Meanwhile the Treadwells blog announces a new exhibition at the Transition Gallery (in London) entitled “Sex and Witchcraft”

“A sinister beauty pervades the work of seven artists from London, Manchester and Budapest in Sex and Witchcraft. Working across media, often incorporating the use of found materials and tabletop techniques, the artists engage in a disturbing alchemy. Dabbling in the chemistry of first sighting and the magical fusion of opposing elements, the artists reveal a dark underbelly to the world of love and flowers, white horses and watercolours.”

The “Sex and Witchcraft” show also features a specially commissioned essay from punk-pioneer turned occult historian Gary Lachman.

Over at MetaPagan, Cat Chapin-Bishop notices a “spontaneous blog carnival” concerning interactions between Paganism and Christianity.

“It must be something in the aether…Discussions of Christianity are breaking out on Pagan blogs everywhere. It’s odd, but whenever I post anything related to the subject of Christianity at my own blog, the number of hits and comments–from Pagans–goes way up. Maybe I’m not the only person to have noticed this, because over the last few days, numerous members of the Pagan/Heathen blogosphere have posted entries on the topic of Christo-Paganism and related topics. Some bloggers are concerned, some are puzzled, and some are embracing at least some Christian concepts, if not Christianity, per se.”

My coverage of Christo-Pagan inmates is included in this accidental blog carnival, as are entries from Gus DiZerega and Chapin-Bishop’s own Quaker Pagan Reflections.

Over at Paganachd Bhandia, Kathryn Price NicDhana points to updates on direct action protests taking place in Ireland in a bid to save Tara from further development.

“We still need bodies on the line, supplies sent to the camps, and fierce magic in support. See my earlier posts for more details if you’re new here.”

For this blog’s previous coverage concerning the fight to preserve the Hill of Tara, click here.

In a final note, author Erik Davis reviews the book “Romantic Religion” by R.J Reilly, and explores romanticism, sacred plays, the Inklings, and what really attracts him to religion.

“I have also begun to suspect that, a lot of the time, what has really attracted me to religion was less the glimmer of supernatural knowledge, of some answer to the irascible longing in my heart and the mercurial confusion in my mind, than the creative imagination that channels so much of this stuff in the first place. At root, my spirit resonates with to aesthetic dimension of religion – the pungent bite of frankincense, the swelling gallop of Mozart’s requiem mass, the comic book arcana of cosmological maps, the turn of phrase in a lost gospel, the spare decor of the zendo. It is not that I am interested only in aesthetics, or story, or figurative art – I have spent tons of time with doctrine and history, and I love the experience of some model or argument about the nature of existence or God or the afterlife worms its way into my quotidian mind. But the real alchemy happens when the creative imagination soars beyond itself, towards matters of final import. I cannot imagine an awakened genuine religion without flavor and taste, without vivid figures and surprise. I rarely read wisdom books unless they are engaging as literature.”

To find more great Pagan-friendly blog content, check out Blog Elysium for an extensive list of blog links, and MetaPagan for a human-edited look at content from other (Pagan) blogs.

That is all I have for now, have a great day!

There have been some stories of note concerning indigenous faith and politics that have been popping up recently that might be of interest to my modern Pagan audience. Starting off, Reuters has a wonderful article about the Bolivian celebration of Alasita (which, according to some, translates as “buy me”), the festival of abundance that takes place on January 24th.

“Bolivians are crowding the steep cobbled streets of La Paz these days to pay homage to Ekeko, the squat mustached Andean god of abundance. They load down colourful Ekeko statues with tiny items representing prosperity, something elusive in South America’s poorest country. It’s the annual festival of Alasita, the time when Bolivians like to buy trinkets representing their wishes for the new year in the hope Ekeko will make them come true.”

In addition to giving symbolic offerings to Ekeko, people also have their gifts blessed by a local shaman or Catholic priest (and very often, both). Evo Morales, the first fully indigenous president of Bolivia, was given a tiny hen so he can find a partner during the coming year, and a tiny copy of the controversial new constitution he is proposing.

Back in August I reported on how the presidential front-runners seemed to be avoiding taking a stand on issues directly affecting minority faiths in America. This indifference seemed to culminate with the seminal “Prez on the Rez” Democratic debate, in which all the presidential front-runners declined to attend, all stating “scheduling conflicts”.

“If they won’t come talk to us now, they certainly won’t be responsive to us if they get in the White House,” said Kalyn Free, a Choctaw from Oklahoma who is organizing the Democratic forum, called “Prez on the Rez.”

But now that several “Super Tuesday” primaries are coming up that could be swayed by votes from Indian Country things are a bit different, most notably, Barack Obama has been making great gains among American Indians despite doing “everything wrong”.

“He hasn’t attended the annual National Congress of American Indians meet, or rolled out a comprehensive Native American agenda, or even addressed the rumors of his own Native heritage – but he has still, somehow, managed to capture the imagination of Indian Country, say Native American commentators and community activists. Whether that wave of goodwill is enough to carry him to “Super Tuesday” primary victories in the states of Alaska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Arizona, remains to be seen. ‘Obama represents a break from the old – something fresh and new,’ says Paul DeMain, managing editor of the Northern Wisconsin-based newspaper News from Indian Country. ‘Native people are looking at him as someone who can empathize with other people of color.'”

Obama’s rising star among Native voters seems to have made the candidate more receptive to issues within Indian Country, as evidenced by a recent Q&A in Nevada.

“Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois) said he would meet regularly with tribal leaders if he were elected president … Obama said he would work to improve the health and welfare of Native Americans. He is a co-sponsor of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act that is being debated in the Senate this week.”

None of this means that Obama has a lock on the Native vote, many American Indian leaders look fondly on the Clinton years and support Hillary Clinton. One thing is for certain, American Indians will play a crucial role in this year’s primaries and candidates ignore them at their own peril.

In a final note, initial announcements have been made for the 4th Amazonian Shamanism Conference held July 19th – 27th in Peru. Guests include writer Peter Gorman, noted ayahuasca researcher Luis Eduardo Luna, 15 different native curanderos/shamans, and two Brujos.

“During the Conference Presentations you will have ample opportunities to hear the many shamans speaking alone as well as in panel discussions. It is during this time that you will get a sense of which healer you would like to be in Ceremony with. Especially during the question and answer times. There are three evenings set aside for you to be in Ceremony with the shaman – curandero or your choice. All Ceremonies are held outside of Iquitos, either up or downriver or way out on the Iquitos to Nauta highway and then a short 15 minute walk into the various Compounds.”

The conference is sponsored by Soga del Alma (“vine of the soul”), a church that advocates for the use of “power plants” (entheogens like ayahuasca) in a religious context.

Yesterday I wrote about what the mainstream press thought were the top religion stories of 2006, and today I present the first part of my top ten news stories that involve or affect modern Paganism. A ongoing theme this year seems to be legal issues and discrimination, but there were some interesting quirks and stories that fall outside the issue of litigation. 2006 has been an eventful year, and it was difficult narrowing it down to just ten stories, but I think I have picked the ones that had the greatest impact now and for the future. What follows are my picks for the bottom six stories of 2006, the top four will follow tomorrow.

10. The Rachel Bevilacqua custody case. What happens when your religion is used against you? Rachel “Rev. Magdalen” Bevilacqua was barred from all contact with her son after photos of her at an adults-only Subgenius event were submitted by her son’s father as proof that she was an unfit parent. The original judge called Bevilacqua “perverted” and “mentally ill” before stepping down under a growing scrutiny of his actions. The case is still in litigation (for nearly a year now) as the biological father’s lawyers keep trying to delay a final decision on custody. This case is emblematic of the ongoing issues Pagans and other minority religions face in divorce and custody cases. Part of this problem is the fact that many adherents of minority faiths don’t have the money to hire decent lawyers, while often facing the combined wealth of the Christian families on the opposing side.

9. Supreme Court allows entheogenic tea. In a unanimous decision the Supreme Court ruled (full opinion, here) that members of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal may legally import and use the entheogenic tea hoasca. The tea which contains traces of DMT is banned by the Controlled Substances Act. This is seen as a blow to the Bush administration who has been actively fighting this case for years. The court ruled that the government has failed to supply a “compelling interest” to limit the religious practices of the group, Justice Roberts said that the government was taking a “zero tolerance approach.” This is widely seen as a triumph of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and could also open the doors to other religious groups who feel that the ritualized use of entheogenic substances are an important part of their practice.

8. Religious Right tactics backfire in favor of Pagans. We are used to different factions of the Religious Right fighting to put Christianity “back” into schools and other government-funded areas, but this year we witnessed this tactic backfire (at least) twice and the true ramifications of their actions become more clear. First the Brunswick County Board of Education in North Carolina tried to approve a new policy that would allow the disbursement of religious tracts in their schools. But after Llewellyn publications offered to disburse free Pagan books through local groups, the board got cold feet, tabled the vote, and spawned one of my favorite news photos of the year. Then later this year Falwell’s Liberty Counsel threatened an elementary school in Charlottesville with legal action if it didn’t allow two children to distribute Bible-school flyers, the school board fearing legal action started allowing religious material which opened the way for a local Pagan group to advertise their Yule event (much to the chagrin of local Christians). Do you think that since their fingers have been singed they will have learned their lesson?

7. Growing freedoms for Pagans outside America. This year saw all sorts of positive news for Pagans outside of America. Greek Pagans were allowed the right to perform public rituals and legally exist in the Orthodox-dominated country, Romania has officially recognized Witchcraft, and Iceland has increased the number of Asatru priests who can perform legal ceremonies. Meanwhile, a recent examination of census data makes modern Paganism the fastest growing religious category in Australia. It looks like the re-birth of Paganism is growing strong roots just about everywhere it exists.

6. American teens are experimenting with Wicca/Witchcraft in ever-growing numbers. The evangelical polling organization The Barna Group found in three national studies of over 4000 teens that an overwhelming majority of (73%) have participated in “psychic or witchcraft-related activity, beyond mere media exposure or horoscope usage.” This was so remarkable that the organization listed it as one of their most significant findings of the year. It may not be a “phase” either. The recently released Baylor study on American religion found a “surprising level” of paranormal belief and experience amongst adults as well. Figures that could signify a continuing growth of modern Pagan faiths.

5. First imprisoned modern Pagan executed. Michael Lenz, an Asatruar on death row for the killing of a fellow inmate was executed in July of this year. Reporters examined the Asatru faith in and out of prison, and Asatru bloggers tried to explain their theology to a press that seemed to not “get” their religion.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the top 4!