Archives For Florida

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PENSACOLA, Fla – It was announced Tuesday that the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office (ECSO) had made progress in the July triple homicide dubbed the ‘Blue Moon’ murders. Donald Wayne Hartung Sr, age 58, was arrested the morning of Oct 27 for the murder of his mother Voncile ‘Bonnie’ Smith (age 76) and his two half brothers Richard Thomas Smith (age 49) and John William Smith (age 47). Hartung is being held in the Escambia County jail without bond.

pensacolaThe case, as originally reported, was labeled the ‘Blue Moon’ murders after Sheriff David Morgan linked the case to that week’s blue moon. He called the murder “ritualistic” and the scene “odd at best.” Additionally, during the Aug. 4 news conference, Morgan reported that the case was connected to Witchcraft, which set off a week-long international media frenzy.

Over the past three months, there has been no public updates on the investigation. Then, on Tuesday, ECSO announced Hartung’s arrest and, subsequently, held a press conference. According to the Sheriff Morgan, the crime scene was confusing with “significant forensic evidence.” This was corroborated by State Attorney Bill Eddins, who said that it was one of the “most complicated he’d seen in his career.” They both cited this factor as the reason for the delays in making an arrest and updating the public.

When asked more specifically about the motive, Sheriff Morgan said, “I don’t concern myself as much with motive, you know because again … from my area of this in law enforcement we don’t really care so much as to why they did it, as the fact that it did occur.”

Then, he was asked specifically about the ‘witchcraft’ motive, to which he said, “Yes, it is still in play.”  Although in this press conference, he himself did not use the term ‘witchcraft’ or any related words. Sheriff Morgan did, however, clearly note that there was evidence in the home that Hartung practiced Witchcraft, and that the suspect made statements supporting that evidence. ECSO would not release any more information, saying that the details will come out in court.

Later that same day, Sheriff Morgan gave an exclusive interview to the local ABC affiliate. In that video, Sheriff Morgan did use the word ‘witchcraft,’ saying “it is still an element of the case.” He elaborated, saying that investigators found “photos, items, physical evidence” suggesting the practice of Witchcraft. Those details along with the July 31 blue moon and the reported “self-admissions” are keeping the Witchcraft theory in play. This interview can be seen in full below.

Despite the arrest and news update, the alleged ‘Witchcraft’ connection still remains mystery to the public. As noted by Sheriff Morgan, there were two other possible theories being pursued as well. One involved R.T. Williams’ connection to the Department of Homeland Security, but that has since been dropped. The third is monetary, or “financial gains.”

Additionally, it is now being reported that the crime scene, originally called ‘ritualistic,’ was not at all staged suspiciously. According News 5, “investigators are now [saying] that the bodies were not found laid out in a ritual pattern. All three bodies were discovered in separate rooms of the house.”

Despite the changing details and downplaying of the ‘Witchcraft’ angle, the media is still working the ‘Occult’ angle, which may be partially due to the upcoming holiday. News reports are now calling the case “the Witchcraft murders.”

Regardless of motivation, it is entirely possible that the suspect did dabble in the Craft in some form. Books and online information are easily accessible to anyone. In fact, local News 5 is now reporting that the victims’ family members state that “Hartung ‘loosely’ practiced some form of witchcraft or Wiccan religion, and kept at least one Wiccan book in his office.” This may be what ECSO found.

We reached out to local Wiccan Priest Rev. Edward Livingston, who said, “[Hartung] is not part of the Pagan community to anyone’s knowledge…. I’ve never heard of him.” Livingston is the founder of the Fire Dance Church of Wicca, the only 501(c)3, Wiccan church in the area. He has lived there for 50 years and been active in the Pagan community for over 20.

Livingston described the Pensacola religious climate as very conservative. He said that it is dominated by the Southern Baptist, Assembly of God, and Pentecostal Churches. He added that there are two Jewish synagogues, a few Catholic churches, one Unity Church and one UU congregation. Due to this atmosphere, most Pagans remain “in the broom closet” and practice in small covens or alone. Livingston said, “We all know solitary practitioners that have never had any training. If it turns out to be this [is] the case maybe its once again a good reason for proper education within our community.”

1917403_177645989062_5187128_nWhen asked if there had been any backlash due to the very public ‘Witchcraft’ accusations, Livingston emphatically said “no.” As he explained, this is partly due to the solitary nature of most Pagans in the area. Additionally, he added  “[Most locals] saw this as our silly sheriff over speaking  He has a history for histrionics and over reaction.”

Livingston himself was outraged by the entire fiasco in August, both with ECSO and in the media. He also said that, to date, no one from ECSO has contacted him, or any other Pagan known to him, to assist with the case or clarify the details about Witchcraft or Wicca.

As announced Tuesday, the so-called ‘Blue Moon’ murder case has now been handed over the the State Attorney’s office, who will be seeking the death penalty due to the number of victims and the situation. Hartung is due in court for a Grand Jury hearing on Nov 18 at 8:30am.

Until the court case makes more details public, there are still questions remaining. Is there really any tangible connection to Witchcraft or Wicca? And, if so, is that Witchcraft connection truly the motivation behind the gruesome act? Or is it simply the religious practice of the suspect – an irrelevant, but very distracting, detail?

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“We expect a candidate to be bland, uninteresting … We pretend we want politicians who are honest or unconventional, someone who has not sold his soul to special interests. But as soon as that person arrives, we crucify him. Trying to understand him is the last thing on anyone’s mind.”  – U.S. Senate candidate Augustus Sol Invictus

Florida attorney Augustus Invictus is garnering national headlines in his run to replace Sen. Marco Rubio. Most of those headlines focus on or include sensationalized reports about him drinking the blood of a sacrificed goat. Mr. Invictus’ attempt to run as a Libertarian Party of Florida (LPF) candidate has also resulted in the resignation of the party’s chair and vice chair, both of whom protest the lack of LPF Executive Committee opposition to the possible candidate prior to the primary vote

In his resignation letter, former LPF Chair Adrian Wyllie alledged that Invitcus’ Thelema-inspired religious views, his name, and his stance on eugenics and future civil war make him an unfit Libertarian candidate. He wrote, “My strong opposition to him has put me in conflict with the LPF Executive Committee.”

The mainstream press is having a field day with some of the allegations and reader comments tend toward either mocking or open hostility. Is this a case of non-Pagans misunderstanding Pagan views and religious practices? Does religious bigotry play a role in some of these reactions? Or, are these allegations true?


The Wild Hunt takes a closer, interviewing Mr. Invictus and others involved. First, we’ll break down the allegations from Mr. Wyllie’s resignation letter.

Animal Sacrifice
This is the allegation which has captured the most reporter and reader attention. Wyllie states, “I would never disparage anyone on the basis of their religion. But, since Mr. Invictus cites his religion as the motivation for his violent intentions, I believe it must be scrutinized. Mr. Invictus practices Thelema, an occult pagan religion based on the teachings of Aleister Crowley. Mr. Invictus was ejected from Ordo Templi Orientis for brutally and sadistically dismembering a goat in a ritualistic sacrifice.”

While Invictus disputes he dismembered a goat he readily admits to sacrificing a goat in a ritual of thanksgiving, “What actually happened is that I undertook a religious Pilgrimage in the Spring of 2013, walking from Orlando, Florida to the Mojave Desert in California. I did not expect to survive the journey or the desert, and so I sacrificed a goat to the God of the Wilderness in thanksgiving some time later, after my return to Florida. But that does not grab the headlines quite as well as ‘Chairman resigns to protest animal sacrifice by Senate candidate,’ which is how this is being spun.”

As of publication date over 140 news articles have been published in the last 72 hours focusing on Invictus’ sacrifice of the goat. There are a number of religions that practice some form of ritual animal killing, slaughter or sacrifice. However, the mainstream press regularly treats all forms of ritual sacrifice as outlandish and barbaric. Many comments claim Invictus’ ritual killing of an animal makes him unfit to hold office, while others point out the hypocrisy of being horrified by animal sacrifice while dining on factory meat.


Some people have condemned the act as “Satanic witchcraft,” while others call for Invictus to be killed. If Invictus was a Muslim sacrificing a lamb during Hajj or a Jewish person sacrificng a rooster the day before Yom Kippur would the media coverage and reader reaction be different?

The Wild Hunt has covered the controversy surrounding animal sacrifice many times and even Pagans disagree about the ethics of the practice.

Many modern Pagans and Heathens shy away from — or are downright horrified by — the idea of animal sacrifice. Arguments against the practice generally come from a place of concern for the animals involved, or a fear that it would result in an “othering” by mainstream society. On the other hand, the sacrificial priests say that the practice is rooted in compassion and community, and that criticisms of their work reveal a fundamental disconnect with the food system, and perhaps a smoldering of racism as well.

Jeff Billman, a Libertarian Pagan, definitely believes that religious bigoty is in play here, both within the media coverage and in the allegations by Wyllie. In a Facebook post, Billman wrote:

 All the reasons that Adrian Wyllie tried to convince the Libertarian Party of Florida to take action against Augustus Invictus went unreported. Instead, Bay News 9 (the 24 hour cable news channel on Bright House Networks in the Tampa Bay Area of Florida) insinuated that Wyllie resigned because Invictus practices animal sacrifice. Despite the continued denials of his supporters, Adrian Wyllie is conducting a witch hunt against Pagan Libertarians, and this report proves it. I demand that the Libertarian Party of Florida take steps to censure Adrian Wyllie, and to make a statement that the Libertarian Party of Florida respects the religious beliefs of all, including Pagans. I will be making a formal motion to that effect with the Executive Committee of the Libertarian Party of Florida, once I ascertain Mr. Wyllie’s current membership status.

Wyllie has not only resigned as LPF Chair, but has also left the LPF Party. In a written interview, he told The Wild Hunt, “I was not familiar with Thelema specifically before this, but I am familiar with Paganism. I’m probably most familiar with Wicca, because I have some close friends that practice it. I have other friends who identify as Pagans, but not any specific order. I think a candidate’s religion is absolutely irrelevant. The only reason it became at all relevant with Mr. Invictus was because he used it as his justification for violence and starting a civil war. I strongly believe that his view of Paganism is completely warped, and that the overwhelming majority of Pagans are good, peaceful people who don’t share his apocalyptic visions. He doesn’t represent Pagans any more than a violent Jihadist represents Muslims.”

Ejection from Ordo Templi Orientis
Invictus posted a video of himself performing the sacrifice and said that he was expelled by the OTO shortly after for what he said were political reasons. The OTO Public Information Officer would only confirm that Augustus Sol Invictus has not been a member of Ordo Templi Orientis since November 9, 2013, and that the circumstances surrounding his expulsion are confidential.

Thelema is a religion based on the teachings of Aleister Crowley and has as its two main tenets: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” and “Love is the law, love under will.” The goal of Thelemites is to discover their True Will, which is defined as “what they were meant to do on this earth.” Initiations of violence are generally frowned on in Thelema, while physical defense of individual rights is allowed. This is similar to the Non-Aggression Principle in Libertarian philosophy.


We spoke with author and Occultist James Wasserman about Invictus’ run for Senate and his alleged expulsion from OTO. Wasserman has been a member of OTO since 1976 and knows Invictus.” It is difficult to comment on this individual without understanding that he suffers from mental illness. We are repeatedly warned in the mystic teachings of the dangers of madness: ‘The mystic swims in the same waters in which the psychotic drowns.’ ”

Wasserman goes on to explain, “The unrestrained plunge into the Abyss comes through attachment to the Ego. In the Star Wars story, Luke hears Obi-Wan calling upon him to trust “The Force.” Such ancient myths, translated into modern cinema, can retain their truth when skillfully told. Augustus Sol Invictus pursues his fantasy life on YouTube with phony accents, unbalanced rants, and even despicable acts of violence. Anyone contemplating taking him seriously should first ask him to remove the password protection from his YouTube video of a goat sacrifice. If you find him acceptable after that, go in peace. While some of his written political philosophy may contain some coherence, we would expect no less from one who was once sane enough to earn a law degree. To pretend that the teachings of the Law of Thelema justify his behavior or his opinions besmirches Truth with the tarnish of delusion, egomania, and narcissism. I am sorry to witness his fall. At one point, I believed he might have had some potential.”

Changing His Name
Wyllie said that “Even the legally-changed name he chose for himself is revealing. August Sol Invictus is Latin, and translates to ‘The Unconquerable Sun God’ ” He sites this as another reason that Invictus is unfit to be a Libertarian candidate. His name was also joked about in reader comments attached to articles.

Although Invictus primarily calls himself Pagan, those close to him say he is a Roman Reconstructionist, or a person looking to revive the religion of ancient Rome. Similar to how Pagans may have a Craft name, converts to other religions will sometimes change their name to reflect their new religious identity. For example, it’s not an uncommon for those converting to Islam, and it is not considered egotistical to change that name to that of their Prophet, Mohammed. Changing your name to Augustus Sol Invictus may be an indicator of an inflated self worth and a desire to rule over others, or it may be a sincere sign of devotion to a specific God.

Advocating Violence and Civil War
One of the more troubling allegations for many within the Libertarian Party is Invictus’ interest in inciting a second civil war. Wyllie said, “Mr. Invictus has repeatedly vowed that it is his destiny to start a second civil war in America. In a 2013 memo to his colleagues, he wrote, ‘I have prophesied for years that I was born for a Great War; that if I did not witness the coming of the Second American Civil War, I would begin it myself.’ ”  This memo was published by Above the Law in 2013.

Wyllie also has claimed that, in a private, face-to-face meeting, he asked Invictus directly, “Do you actually intend to kill millions of people and start a civil war?” Wyllie said that his answer was, “It’s my religion.” Invictus remembers the conversation differently. He said that they were talking about transhumanism and Nietzsche and the idea that mankind must be overcome.

In our interview, Wyllie directed us to a video created by Invictus titled Give Me A War. Wyllie cites this as an example of Invictus intentions. When we asked Invictus about the video, he said that it was a poem made several years ago. He explained, “This is in reference to the poem Seven Seals, which Wyllie has taken upon himself to rename to Give Me a War, in keeping with his dishonest tactics. Seven Seals is a poem and an Enochian invocation, not a call for a civil war. The original recitation can be found here.” He added that these videos are poetry readings and have nothing to do with his stance as a political candidate.



This is the allegation which appears to disturb the LPF Executive Committee the most. Wyllie claims that Invictus supports a return to a government supported eugenics program, which would sterilize, euthanize or forcibly abort ‘the weakest, the least intelligent, and the most diseased.’

This particular allegation also appears to strike the strongest nerve among Thelemites, many of whom expressed private outrage while refusing to make comments on the record.

When we asked Invictus directly if he supports eugenics, as alleged by Wyllie, he said, “I do not support a eugenics program, and this is a bold faced lie by Wyllie. This was addressed in one of my first Fireside Chats. Wyllie has heard me say a hundred times that I do not support a eugenics program, and he knows all the reasons why; but he also knows that in ceaselessly repeating this allegation he does not need to argue about it. It reminds me of a statement attributed to Joseph Goebbels: ‘If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself.’ ”

However, Invictus’ Senate campaign website contains conflicting information on this subject. In a blog post titled “A Declaration on the Failings of the Federal Government,” bullet point number 25 states:

It has abandoned its eugenics program & elitist mindset in favor of decadent ideology that rejects the beauty of strength and demands the exponential growth of the weakest, least intelligent, and the most diseased.

Yet in the site’s FAQ section, Invictus notes that, while he wrote a paper in support of eugenics during law school, he has since changed his mind and regrets writing it. He asserts that a portion of the U.S.eugenics program is still legal today and that “no ruler or group of bureaucrats should have that sort of power over another person” and calls forced sterilization an “abuse of power.”

General Policy Positions
In looking at Invictus’ campaign website, his actual policy positions are much less controversial. He is against the drug war, constant war, government bans on same sex marriage, firearms, and marijuana. He departs from typical Libertarian policies on supporting government protection of the environment and for FDA regulations.

Other portions of his website reveal a candidate who is far from the “bland” or “uninteresting ,” as Invictus says voters expect. Many of his fireside chats have him affecting an accent that is difficult to place. He describes himself as a poet, artist, and a scholar. In one featured video, Invictus says that he wants “you to revolt…I want you to be dangerous…I want each and every one of you to be a legitimate threat…I don’t want you to vote so much as I want you to wake up, drop out and tune in, I want you to take LSD and practice sorcery.”

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On Sunday, the LPF took action, considering two motions concerning Invictus. The first motion proposed expelling him from the party. That motion failed. The second motion called for the LPF to formally condemn Invictus for violating the Non-Aggression Principle. That motion carried.

The LPF put out this statement on Monday. It reads, in part: 

During yesterday’s meeting of its Executive Committee, the Libertarian Party of Florida (LPF) voted to condemn platform issues associated with U.S. Senate candidate, Augustus Invictus. The LPF finds the initiation of violence through his call for civil war and state-sponsored murder abhorrent. These platform issues are diametrically opposed to the principles of the LPF.

Char-Lez Braden, chair of the LPF said this morning, “Legally, the LPF has no control over a candidate’s political affiliation. Florida election laws allow anyone, with any ideology, to run as a candidate in the party they declared when registering to vote. The LPF has not endorsed Augustus Invictus and has not provided him with any support. Under the law, we cannot prevent him from running as a Libertarian and he is not required to enter our certification process.”

Currently, Invictus is the only candidate seeking to run as a Libertarian for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat. Even though Florida election law allows anyone to run, as noted in the statement, his inclusion on the ballot as a third party candidate is not assured. To be listed on the ballot itself, Invictus needs to gather 100,000 signatures or pay $10,000.

At this point, Florida voters and LPF members will have to decide for themselves if Invictus is a candidate worthy of support, or if his views, past or present, are problematic. At the same time it appears that the ways in which much of the media are covering the story, with a focus on animal sacrifice to near exclusion of many of the other allegations and concerns, demonstrates unexamined religious bias. In addition, the general public’s reaction to these reports, as seen in various comments, suggests the same stark religious bigotry – one that could cause tension and problems for any Pagan politician in a run for public office.

We will continue to follow the story and update our readers as it develops.

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3377032_1440958544.4266On Aug. 18, the Florida Pagan community lost one of its longtime, active members. Lady Moonfire, elder of the Church of Iron Oak – ATC and High Priestess of Coven Tropic Moon, passed beyond the veil after losing a long battle with cancer. Also known as Brandie Gramling, Lady Moonfire was born in Bristol, Connecticut March 25, 1957. She studied and lived in Kentucky before arriving in Florida, which then became her home.

Brandie’s Pagan journey began in 1994 when she joined the Church of Iron Oak. She helped with the group’s 10 month legal battle over zoning restrictions in the city of Palm Bay. During that time, Iron Oak’s neighbors attempted to stop the group from performing Wiccan rituals and worship in its home temple space. These neighbors claimed that the area was zoned residential only. In the end, Iron Oak won the battle when the city’s zoning board, ruled in its favor.

In 1996, Brandie moved to the Coven Lia Fail where she was initiated into the Gardnerian tradition. Then, in 1999, she finished her training, receiving her third degree. Nine years later, she was ordained by the Aquarian Tabernacle Church. Over that time period, Brandie also became involved with Florida Pagan Gathering (FPG), first as an attendee and eventually as a staff member. For twenty years, Brandie was present at every FPG, twice-yearly. In addition to being an active Priestess, Brandie enjoyed teaching students, making mead and being an herbalist. In the late 1990s, she maintained a small web presence devoted to these topics.

In the fall of 2014, Brandie was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, and she began and extensive treatment program. In February 2015, a GoFundMe campaign was launched to help offset her growing medical costs. However, in Aug, she lost her battle and passed away. Her family has left the fund open to donations, and all money will be used to pay her final bills. Brandie is survived by her husband, their partner, her two daughters and her father. Coven Tropic Moon has moved to Kentucky and is under the care of Lady Luna Owlheart and Lord Fox Fire. According to the family, there will be no public memorial. They have chosen to privately scatter Brandie’s ashes over a number of different places that she held dear. What is Remembered, Lives.

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Many Gods West Facebook Photo

Many Gods West Facebook Photo

Organizers have announced the return of Many Gods West. According to the announcement, Niki Whiting is returning as one of the coordinators of the event uniquely devoted to Polytheism. Once again, it will be held in Olympia, Washington. The opening and closing ceremonies will be hosted by Rynn Fox of the Coru Cathubodua. At this point, those are the only details provided.

Whiting said, “The enthusiasm, support, and love for this conference – from the gods and from humans – exceeded any expectations I had. I am hoping that MGW 2016 will be even better.” She added that organizers will be accepting proposals sometime this fall. She suggests following the MGW facebook for the most recent news, including all important dates and the launch of the 2016 web page.

In the meantime, you can read more about the inaugural 2015 Many Gods West event here at The Wild Hunt. Heathen Chinese attended and provided us with an extensive review of his experience.

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602721_484990421567144_202466889_nEverglades Moon Local Council (EMLC), a division of Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) located in Florida, has released its most recent podcast. This Mabon recording marks the 15th episode of the “Reaching for the Moon” podcast.

In 2013, EMLC organizers began creating podcasts in conjunction with the sabbats. They saw this as a way to not only regularly communicate with their community members, who are spread out over the entire state, but also to involve them in a unique way. The first podcast was recorded for Imbolc of that year. It included interviews with attendees of EMLCs yearly “Turning the Tides” event, as well as a Pagan parenting discussion and music by Lady Bridget and Ginger Doss.

Over the past two years, the podcasts have grown considerably and include more variety and greater participation. The 15th edition includes five different talks, on topics from baking bread to “Pagan Standard Time,” and three musical selections by the groups Crow Woman and Emerald Rose. EMLC invites everyone to participate, “If you’d like to contribute something to our podcast, whether it’s your music, an article, or something else, please leave us a comment below and we’ll get back to you to help make that happen!” You can listen to the podcasts on the group’s website or through iTunes, Stitcher and Libsyn.

In Other News:

  • Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried has published the first of a two-part interview with writer Jennifer Snook. As we reported in June, Snook is the author of the new book American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement. She is a professor of sociology at Grinnell College, and has been a practicing Heathen since the age of eighteen. In his article, Seigfried writes, “For anyone interested in the subject of modern Heathen belief and practice, the book is indispensable. As the first work of its kind, it will be the defining text in this field.” He then moves on to the extensive, in-depth interview.
  • As we noted last week, T. Thorn Coyle has returned to blogging after an short hiatus. During that break, she was able to focus on different projects, one of which was her fiction book Like Water. The other is the newly published book Sigil Magic: For Writers, Artists and Other Creatives. This book was published in Aug, and it is described as such: “Sigils can assist us with any creative venture: from writing novels and prepping art shows, to building lives filled with curiosity, wonder, and success. Sigil Magic walks us through a variety of ways to generate and charge up our sigils, and includes instructions for preparation and cleansing, working with intentional statements, and using magical mantras and a variety of sigils types. Take a risk. Make your mark.” Sigil Magic is currently available through Amazon.
  • Diotima Mantineia, Chief Star Gazer at Urania’s Well, is beginning a new 9 week course in Astrology. Mantineia has been studying the subject since 1968, and it has guided much of her Pagan experience. Taught from Mantineia’s home in North Carolina, the beginner astrology class will be held completely online and will begin Oct. 19. Manineia writes, “The symbolic language of astrology offers profound insights … No astrologer, no other person, can do more than point you toward these gems — only you can fully experience the truths that ignite your soul. And that’s why I am teaching this course.”
  • The Conference on Current Pagan Studies has extended its abstract deadline to Oct 6. The announcement reads, “The overall theme for the 2016 Conference is Social Justice. We face issues of social justice everywhere we look, from something as overwhelming as ‪#‎blacklivesmatter‬ to the seeming trivial Wiccanate privilege … We are looking for papers from all disciplines. A community needs artists, teachers, scientists, healers, historians, philosophers, educators, thinkers, activists, etc.” The abstracts should be no more than 300 words. More information is available on its website.


  • Our friends in South Africa will be celebrating Pagan Heritage Day on Sept. 26. This event is sponsored by the Pagan Assistance Network and will be held Sunnyridge Primary, Germiston. The festival includes music, drumming, food, art, vendors and more. Contact information is available in the graphic above and on the website

That’s it for now. Have a great day!

PENSACOLA, FLORIDA –  On Friday, July 31, three residents were found murdered in their home on Deerfield Drive in the coastal city of Pensacola. The victims were Richard Thomas Smith (age 49), his brother John William Smith (age 47) and their mother Voncile Smith (age 76). The Escambia County Sheriff’s Office (ECSO) found them at 9:30 a.m. during a welfare call, which was requested by Richard’s concerned employer.

During that morning check, officers found the three bodies. Their throats were slit, and Richard had a gun shot through his neck. As has been reported, the family was killed on Tues, July 28. and their deaths were caused by blunt force trauma by hammer. The police have ruled out robbery and are currently investigating.

This gruesome reality turned media frenzy after the department held an Aug. 4 news conference. During the opening speech, Sheriff David Morgan called the case “odd at best,” describing the family as reclusive. Then when he was asked about motive, he responded:

… initial research has led us to believe that there is a potential that it was a ritualistic killing … The method of the murder, blunt force traumas, slit throats, positions of bodies and then our person of interest has some ties to a faith or religion that is indicative of that.

When asked for more, Sheriff Morgan noted, “Well, again, the time of the blue moon every three years, the method of the murders and also our person of interest is known to practice this.” He was then asked directly “What religion?” Sheriff Morgan responded, “It is Witchcraft.” The full news conference was uploaded to You Tube.

That was all it took. Within minutes, the local, national and, eventually, international media were reporting on the triple murder. “Witchcraft suspected in savage murder of family” reported the local CBS affiliate WKRG. The Washington Post announced, “Florida triple murder tied to ‘witchcraft’ and blue moon, police say.” And asked,”Witchcraft’ and ‘blue moon’ behind Pensacola triple homicide?”

Shortly after, NBC quoted ECSO’s own Sgt. Andrew Hobbes saying, “It appears that this might be connected to some type of Wiccan ritual killing and possibly tied to the blue moon.” Witchcraft suddenly changed to Wicca. Several ABC and CBS affiliates around the country picked up the wording change. For example, one in Texas reported, “Wiccan ritual may be motive behind deaths of three family members in Fla.” And, the UK’s Daily Mail announced, “Florida family murdered with a hammer in ‘ritualistic Wiccan killing planned to coincide with the Blue Moon‘ ”

As the story continued to gain media traction throughout Tuesday and into Wednesday, Pagans began to speak out publicly against both the sensationalist, and often false, coverage and the Sheriff’s premature speculation. Peg Aloi at “The Witching Hour” wrote, “I am fairly certain there is nothing in any book on Wicca that has ever been published on Planet Earth that describes body positions consistent with ritual murder.”

Lady Liberty League (LLL), who has been investigating the situation, published a statement, saying, “We are deeply concerned by the misrepresentations of Wicca, witchcraft and Paganism that have resulted, and are currently working to respond to the situation … We ask that all Wiccans, Pagans and those concerned send prayers and energy for healing to those affected by the murders, local law enforcement, the local community and the cause of religious understanding and Pagan civil liberties worldwide.”

LLL’s Rev. Selena Fox is one of two Pagans quoted in a Guardian article titled, “Wicca experts slam Florida sheriff for linking triple murder to ‘witchcraft.‘” Published Aug 5, the UK news outlet took a very different approach from others agencies by talking to actual Pagan practitioners. The Guardian quoted Fox as saying, “Ritual murder is not part of the Wiccan religion, it never has been, and it’s not now.” She also said added, “There are so many crime shows on TV and the Internet [that involve witchcraft], and I think that some story lines can complicate reporting on actual crimes.” Dr. Gwendolyn Reece, was also quoted and said, “If they had done even a modicum of research it would be clear this had nothing to do with Paganism.”

Riki Lee Para started a petition titled “Stop the Witch Hunt!” It reads, in part, “We send our deepest condolences to the victims and families involved, however the Wiccan community will not stand for allegations from a high ranking office of justice that these murders were due to a ‘Blue Moon Ritual by a Wiccan Practitioner'” In less then 24 hours, it has earned over 817 signatures.


[Courtesy Boston Public Library]

As is typical, the media storm caused some confusion on what had actually been reported by the sheriff’s department. In attempt to clarify, ECSO republished the portion of the news conference transcript that specifically mentioned Witchcraft. The second press release, titled “Statement Concerning Transcript of news conference,” read:

The Escambia County Sheriff’s Office has received numerous inquiries relative to the triple homicide in Escambia County, specifically as to its potential ties to a ritualistic murder. We encourage everyone concerned about the truth and facts to read the following transcript …

In the following abridged statements, ECSO noted that Sheriff Morgan said “While it doesn’t bother me to release it being their being [sic], most assuredly, you do not want to want to [sic] defame or demean any particular practices.” He also noted that “our country” allows for the belief in “anything.”

The Wild Hunt reached out to ECSO and spoke with its PIO Sena Maddison, who said, “The department by no means meant to imply that Wiccans are killers.” She offered apologies to the community for this confusion. When asked about Hobbes statements to NBC, she said that Hobbes was misquoted. He never said the word “Wicca.” She further explained that it was the media confusion that prompted ECSO to release that second statement and to also post the news conference on its You Tube channel and Facebook page.

ECSO may not have intended to create the media frenzy, but the department did cause it by using hot button, or so called click-bait, terms in its initial news conference, which included reference to the blue moon. Unfortunately, the repercussions of such acts are not always limited to news reports and sensational banter. They can also lead to the real-life bullying of modern Witches and Wiccans. The Wild Hunt has received reports over the last day indicating that several Pagans living in small conservative communities have been harassed. Unfortunately, none of these people would go on record.

However, in the online petition, Pensacola Wiccan Katharine Jones did refer directly to this danger. She angrily, wrote, “I am a minister with Fire Dance Church of Wicca, operating in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. The slanderous statements made by Sheriff Morgan present a risk to the safety of the residents of this county. He is inciting hate crimes against anyone who appears to be non-Christian, including essentially everyone who is a member of any counter culture. He is personally responsible for any violence which results from his comments.”

At this point, there are many dots that do not connect within the publicly available story. When asked why ECSO had linked the crime to Witchcraft at all and who this practicing “person of interest” was, Maddison said that she could not reveal any more details on the case, because it is still an open investigation. And, that is standard practice. Additionally, we asked if any officers had contacted local Pagan organizations or individuals, she said, “not yet.”

There currently is just not enough publicly available data to know exactly what happened. Did anyone in the family or associated with the family actually practice Witchcraft or any religion for that matter? Why was the crime considered ritualistic? And, why was the act linked to the blue moon, which actually occurred three days after the reported murder? There are many questions yet to be answered.

As for the media, the local CBS affiliate WKRG has since spoken to the victims’ family members, who are quoted as saying “witchcraft” had nothing to do with the murders. They also added – as proof – “the Smith family were normal folks.” In addition, WKRG followed The Guardians’ lead and is now reporting that “Witches say they’re not linked to Triple Murder.”

The latest news release from ECSO states that samples from the scene are currently being analyzed, and that the department will not update the media until the lab reports are back. Maddion invited us to contact her directly with any future questions. We will continue to follow the case and update as we learn more. In the meantime, the mainstream media will most likely continue to speculate, sensationalize and feed.

Among my favorite places to visit is the Fakahatchee Strand in South Florida. About an hour west of Miami, the Fak (as we call it) is a narrow swamp forest about five miles wide and about 20 miles long. The shallow swamp sits beneath soaring royal palms, bald cypress trees and tropical hardwoods while its near-crystal waters slowly drain southward into the Ten Thousand Islands region of Southwest Florida. The Fak is home to the Florida panther, alligators, river otters, fox squirrels, Everglades minks, native bromeliads, as well as the fantastically rare Ghost Orchid that was highlighted in Susan Orlean’s novel, The Orchid Thief and its ensuing film, Adaptation.

It is primordial.

Photo by M. Tejeda-Moreno

Inside the Fakahatchee Strand. [Photo Credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

The Fak is both close to the city and, like much of Southern Florida, refreshingly and dangerously wild in the word’s deepest sense. In winter, the Fak is crisp and covered in migratory birds. In the summer, you venture with full-body netting and repellent; the mosquitoes are the least of your worries. Spending time in the swamp, whether hiking dry trails or slogging the water, is a constant marvel. Animal noises are punctuated by deafening bursts of silence. You are immersed within the wild; its tangible danger as well as it thick and overflowing life. You become as vigilant as our ancestors in these treacherous places, yet reassured back into modernity as your cell phone makes a weak and random connection. No matter how long you stay or how often you go, you leave transformed.

The experience is a far and away a contrast to the security of our homes and the usual life that we inhabit in cities. Most of us live in spaces designed by humans to maximize both our safety and our comfort. In many ways, however, the Pagan identity is built upon the reconnection with the natural world and, as we have all heard, there is much magic outside our comfort zone.

Many of our rituals address our connection to nature in one way or another; and many of our spiritual traditions place nature as the center point of reverence. Indeed, most of our festivals intentionally pull as away from the familiar, urban life into natural spaces. They help remind us that we are strengthened when we occasionally break away from the structured lives of the city into the randomness and freedom of nature. This is a familiar Pagan pattern: live in the city, renew in the wild.

To be sure, mainstream Western Society has affixed itself to severing connections with the natural world. In the 8th century, Charlemagne’s violent campaigns to Christianize Pagan Saxons culminated in, what the Royal Frankish Annals refers to as, the destruction of the central seat of the Saxon religion, the Irminsul. The Irminsul is described as a large hollow tree trunk clearly connected to Yggdrasil, the sacred tree of Odin that connects the Nine Worlds. The location of the Irminsul appears to have been near modern-day Obermarsberg, Germany towards the Teutoberg Forest; but nothing remains of the location, only the references.

While Charlemagne’s more obvious motive for destroying the Irminsul was to shatter the connections that Pagans had with their religion and ultimately convert them to Christianity, an additional interpretation is that its demolition had the supplementary effect of severing the Saxon connection with nature. Violent and forced conversions are one thing, but if you truly want to permanently decimate a community, disconnect them from the well of their strength.

The Irminsul represented that strength, but urbanizing Pagan communities was the key: that would cap the well. Sever the connection with nature, and the city would subordinate Pagans. The church at the city center would become the new pillar of society and the promised safety and ease of urban life would silence the call of the forests. Indeed, in Latin, Urbanus (city dweller) is the opposite of Paganus (country dweller). Creating city dwellers is the act of destroying country dwellers and, more critically, their values.

[Photo Credit: Stefano Ciotti]

[Photo Credit: Stefano Ciotti]

In time, nature would be seen as wild and ultimately dangerous. The place we came from would become the place we see as alien. Twelve hundred years later, mainstream society continues to embrace Charlemagne’s vision and to villanize nature in many ways. Although we hear occasional Romantic yearnings for the natural world, urbanites constantly, and often inadvertently, whisper to one another the dangers of the wild (not parks, those are “secure” nature”). The mainstream world in which we live collectively encourages urban, modern lifestyles while discouraging people from visiting the wild, reminding us of the risks, hazards and threats “out there.”

Nature is dangerous but it is not a place to dread. Despite the fact the vast majority of people are injured or die in cities, that mainstream world is very invested in us fearing nature to maintain power and profit.

So why keep us from visiting nature? Because visiting nature is unimaginably rebellious. It causes us to question how we live. It reminds us that the future is only possible through sustainability. It exposes us to how we are part of a web of life and, perhaps most importantly, how we humans can uniquely make choices that strengthen and weaken that web. Being in nature helps us recognize that our human strengths involve cooperation and acceptance, rather than control and suppression.

And science has taken notice. In 1984, myrmecologist, professor and “father” of biodiveristy, Dr. E. O. Wilson proposed the Biophilia Hypothesis (later more fully developed by Wilson’s colleague, Dr. Stephen Kellert in 1993). Broadly and simply stated, the hypothesis proposes a human urge to “affiliate with other forms of life.” It was a development from the work of Psychologist Dr. Erich Fromm who first coined the term and proposed the subconscious psychological attraction to be immersed in and have a deep affiliation with nature. To Pagan ears, that probably sounds so obviously self-evident it would merit sarcasm. To urbanites, it is heresy.

Indeed, the Biophilia Hypothesis actually leads to some interesting questions in evolutionary psychology, the subfield of psychological science that explores the evolutionary advantages of our psychological and behavioral characteristics. Because we evolved in a natural environment, that natural environment must also expose those characteristics that represent our optimal functioning. In other words, does being in nature somehow reveal our nobler sides that are possibly hidden by modern urban existence?

As it turns out, yeah it does. In one study, UK researchers examined panel data from 10,000 individuals. Panel data refers to information collected in the same way but at multiple times (pre- and post- testing is an example of simple panel data). The researchers found that after controlling for individual and regional differences, individuals living in urban areas that had more green spaces also reported lower levels of mental distress and higher levels of happiness.

Now there are other factors there that need to be explored and understood more completely, but the interesting point is that an effect was still detected (White, Alcock, Wheeler & Depledge, 2013). In other words, all things were expected to be equal, but they noted a difference. And, that points social science in an interesting direction.

Recently, Canadian researchers conducted three experimental studies to explore more carefully the causal direction of some of those nature findings like the one described above. They presented participants with a “commons dilemma.” It is a specific kind of problem that pits people’s short-term self-interests against longer-term group interests. In this case, it was a fishing simulation that basically boiled down to whether you would harvest fish competitively to make a profit for yourself now or harvest fish cooperatively with others to sustain the group for the future.

Before participants entered the simulation, they were randomly assigned to two groups. One group watched a nature video prior to entering the simulation, and the other group watched a city-building video. The Biophilia hypothesis would predict that watching nature would make you feel more part of it and make you more aware of your actions. And that’s just what happened: the group that watched the nature video exhibited significantly more cooperative behaviors and fished sustainably. The groups that watched the city-building video behaved more competitively. When the study was repeated by introducing a third group that viewed a neutral video, the same cooperative behaviors were still demonstrated (though somewhat more weakly in statistical terms) by the nature-exposed group. In other words, exposure to nature leads to more human cooperation.

[Photo Credit: Stefano Ciotti]

[Photo Credit: Stefano Ciotti]

Now in a third study, the same researchers used a similar design but replaced fishing with a questionnaire on perceived important social values and sustainability. They also changed the videos with generic videos of nature and generic videos of cities. They altered the experiment because they wanted to eliminate the association between fishing and nature, to still see if the effect on cooperation was present.

Instead of the fishing exercise, the participants completed the questionnaire after being randomly assigned to groups and viewing the videos. Again, participants who watched nature videos were more likely to endorse cooperative decision-making and sustainability than their counterparts who watched urban-focused videos (Zelenski, Dopko, & Capaldi, 2015).

The findings speak very loudly: Exposure to Nature is transformative. It reinforces those aspects of ourselves that strengthen our society like cooperation, mutual support, collective good, and sustainability. Those values create collective wealth and sustainable enterprise that expands- not exploits– our relationship with Nature. What science underscores is something that Pagans know: Nature exposes that which makes us Human. Nature reminds us of the human social powers that helps us make collective and positive decisions without needing a central authority, whether that be king or gospel. That is something, I think, Charlemagne could never have come to terms with. Simple, and so very Pagan.

Kellert, S.R. (ed.) (1993). The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press.
White, M.P, Alcock, I., Wheeler, B.W., & Depledge, M.H. (2013). Would You Be Happier Living in a Greener Urban Area? A Fixed-Effects Analysis of Panel Data. Psychological Science, 24, 920-928.
Wilson, E.O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Zelenski, J.M., Dopko, R.L. & Capaldi, C.A. (2015). Cooperation is in our nature: Nature exposure may promote cooperative and environmentally sustainable behavior. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 42, 24-31.

katwoodhouse1 On Feb. 16, tragedy hit Katwood, a 40-acre Pagan sanctuary and sacred retreat nestled in rural southern Virginia. The homestead and all its contents were completely burned to the ground, leaving its full-time occupants, Priest Daniel and his wife Sue, without a place to live. Katwood has been the couple’s home for decades. Daniel, now in his 60s, is the founder and priest of Oak Tree Clan, a group that considers Katwood Sanctuary its spiritual center.

With the help of neighbors, Daniel and Sue moved into a motel and then a friend’s home. However, they miss Katwood, and do plan to rebuild. After the fire, several members of the Oak Tree Clan set up a GoFundMe campaign and a Katwood Rebuild Facebook group to help support the process. One member, Belinda, told The Wild Hunt, “These people are my family, and they have been for a good many years. This place is my spiritual home … I pray that I shall live to see the day I can return there and spend time with them. In the interim, I’ll be planning on visiting my people… my CLAN… in other locations until Katwood is restored.”

Yesterday, it was announced that progress has been made. Friends and neighbors will soon be installing a temporary home on the land so the couple can return by the end of Summer.

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[Courtesy Photo]

From Moonspell,

The Shekinah Mountainwater Memorial Fund has officially launched its website and program. This fund has been established “to ensure that … women are able to complete the work that calls to them during their lifetime.” The spirit of the mission comes straight from the group’s namesake, Shekinah Mountainwater. Organizers explain, “Shekhinah Mountainwater (1939 – 2007) is a foremother of the Womanspirit movement … Shekhinah struggled with financial support during her lifetime. She died envisioning a world in which women were supported for their skills and gifts.”

The memorial fund will be managed by a council of 3-7 women, who either knew Shekhinah or hold true to her vision and work. The founders are currently looking for volunteers to serve on the council. Money raised will be administered through an application process and be used to “support self-identified women doing the spiritual work that calls to them. Projects may include research, publications, events and rituals, music and art, spiritual activism, or anything that provides service or education to enrich the Goddess community.” The application and directions will be posted on the website by late summer.

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Judy Harrow

Judy Harrow

On March 13, Judy Harrow will be honored by The Counselors for Social Justice (CSJ) division of the American Counseling Association (ACA). Harrow was nominated in January by Michael Reeder LCPC, a holistic counselor and therapist. In his submission, Reeder had to demonstrate how Harrow’s work fulfilled the award’s requirements. As noted by CSJ, a recipient’s work in counseling must “affirm diversity and advocate for social justice in the spirit of nine elements of the indigenous Hawai’ian concept of ‘Ohana or extended family,” which include “Malama: Caring, Aloha: Unconditional Love, Ha’aha’a: Humility, Mana: Spiritual Power, Na’auuo: Intelligence, ‘Olu’olu: Courtesy, Lokomaika’i: Generosity, Koa: Courage, Kupono: Integrity, Honesty.

Reeder detailed the many ways that Harrow fulfilled the requirements, including her devotion to Wicca, teaching, counseling, and the Pagan community, as well as her bravery in confronting religious bigotry, her perseverance and her roles in various socio-political movements. He also noted that she had founded her own Wiccan tradition and authored “the best book on pastoral counseling.”

On Feb. 12, Reeder received notification that Harrow had been accepted to receive the 2015 ‘Ohana award. Harrow and her work will be honored this Friday “at the ACA conference in Orlando, Florida from 11:00am to 1:00pm at the Hyatt Regency Orlando.”

In Other News:

  • Paganicon begins this weekend in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Organized and run by Twin Cities Pagan Pride, the event is now in its 5th year and includes “workshops, panels, discussions, social space, live music, a ball, vendors and more.” Rev. Selena Fox is the 2015 guest speaker. In a special Sunday ceremony, Fox, assisted by others from Circle Sanctuary, “will be honoring Pagans who have served and are serving in the U.S. Military” with Circle’s Pagan Military Service Ribbon. Paganicon will be held in the Doubletree Park Place hotel from March 13-15.
  • Covenant of the Unitarian Universalist Pagans has announced its “Second Sermon Contest.” This year’s theme is “Re-enchantment.” The Winner receives $500. According to the announcement, “you do not need to be an ordained minister or a seminary student, nor do you need to be a member of CUUPS” to enter. However, it goes on to say, “you do have to have deliver your sermon, live and in person, to a UU congregation between October 31, 2014 and October 31, 2015.”
  • In other CUUPS news, the organization has relaunched its popular Podcast after a winter hiatus.
  • The new journal Walking the World is still seeking submissions for its next issue. The theme is: “Building Regional Cultus.” As noted on the website,”What does this mean to you? Why is it important to polytheism today? How does one go about doing this? How are you personally maintaining cultus? What problems can arise and how can they best be met? What does it mean to restore and build cultus in the modern world?” The journal premiered at beginning of January with 13 articles focused on the theme of “Ancestors and Hero Cultus.” Submission guidelines for issue 2 can be found on the website.


  • Author and teacher, Shauna Aura Knight has expanded her writing to include two more blogs. Along with Pagan Activist, Knight will be contributing to a new Agora column, called Seeking the Grail,  published at Patheos’ Pagan Channel. Additionally, she will be blogging about Leadership and related subjects at Pagan Square.
  • In Florida, Pagans will be gathering for a brand new outdoor festival, Equinox in the Oaks, to celebrate the return of Spring. This new event is being held on private land about 30 minutes west of Ormond and Daytona beaches.Organizers have put together four full days of workshops, classes, speakers, rituals, drumming and entertainment. Pagan Bard and folk arist Mama Gina is performing Thursday night and a firewalking event will be held Friday night. Equinox in the Oaks begins March 12 and runs through noon on March 15.

That’s it for now. Have a nice day!

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

Gaia Gathering, a Canadian national Pagan conference, launched a new website to announce the opening of registration for its annual event. This coming year marks Gaia Gathering’s 10th anniversary, which will be celebrated in the city where “it all began,” Edmonton, Alberta.

Organizers are currently calling for academic papers saying, “We invite papers and proposals for our academic stream from all fields within the social sciences, arts, and humanities, which are relevant to the academic study of contemporary Paganism, New Religious Movements and related interests.”  In addition to academic paper presentations, the conference also hosts “workshops, panel discussions, and evening entertainment.” Gaia Gathering has been held every year for 10 years during Victoria Day Weekend, May 15-18.

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witch school 2Last week Witch School International released a new book, The Common Book of Witchcraft and Wicca. The publication is available for free via download from the school’s website.

Written by Don Lewis, the book’s forward explains that the new book is “a compendium of copy-right free materials dealing with Wicca and Witchcraft. All the materials within it may be freely shared without the need for any further permission. These materials have been created for the world, and are explicitly intended to be shared. Why? Because we believe that sharing knowledge can create a better world.

In its nearly 400 pages, The Common Book of Witchcraft and Wicca includes articles, poetry, chants, artwork and a biography listing. As reported by Witch School’s website, the digital publication has already been downloaded by people in over 55 countries in the seven days that it has been available.

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church of wiccaThe First Church of Wicca has reopened in Duxuby, Massachusetts after a five year hiatus. The announcement was made on Oct. 19, and the group celebrated its first Sabbat, Nov. 1.

The First Church of Wicca was founded and run by Rev. Dr. Kendra Vaughan Hovey. Many might remember her from the TLC reality show “My Unique Family: The Witches Next Door.” As we reported in 2009, Hovey announced that she was converting to Christianity. After a five hiatus, she has returned to Wicca and reopened her church. The Wild Hunt will have more on this story in the coming weeks.

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Brigid-Color-HorizBurning Brigid Media, a newly established Pagan-run production company, is beginning production on its first film project, a web series called Sleep Study. Company founders Michael Coorlin and Kat O’Connor have extensive experience in Chicago’s film and theater world. They both became disillusioned with many of their mainstream projects and the common representations of marginalized populations.

Last spring, they came together to aim their extensive experience and talents in a new direction. Burning Brigid Media’s goal is to “contribute to a cultural shift through narratives that normalize stories about the traditionally marginalized: women, minority, and LGBT characters presented as people rather than genres.” Their first project, to be launched this summer 2015, is the web series titled Sleep Study. They describe it as a “transmedia atmospheric surreal horror” that will “question the very nature of reality.

In Other News:

  • While most of our readers have been celebrating the Winter Solstice and other early winter holidays, some readers, like those living in Tasmania, Australia, have been preparing for the harvest. Each year the Tasmanian Pagan Alliance hosts an annunal Harvest Fest in mid-January. This family-friendly event includes rituals, workshops, and vendors, and is held 25 minutes outside of Devonport.
  • For some Pagans, the Winter Solstice means a trip to a sacred site, such as Stonehenge and Newgrange. Our own columnist Rhyd Wildermuth was fortunate enough to be selected to enter Newgrange on the Winter Solstice. He will be sharing the experience and photos in his next column.
  • Registration has opened for a new Spring Equinox festival in Florida. The Equinox in the Oaks will take place 30 minutes west of Ormond Beach and Daytona, in the central part of the state. Organizers are excited about the new event, describing it as an “Earth-centered, ethically-focused, family-affirming Pagan festival.” Pre-registration is already underway and they have launched a Facebook fan page to allow future attendees to follow the event’s developments and additions.
  • Another festival that has opened its registration is the mid-winter Feast of Lights hosted by the Earth Spirit Community. The annual event is held in Nothhampton, Massachusetts from Jan. 31-Feb. 1. Organizers describe it “as a weekend of warmth at the coldest time of the year – a festival of of community and hope, of tradition and creativity, of Earth spirituality and the arts, of community and hope, of tradition and creativity.” This year’s special guest will be Viviane Crowley.
World Peace Violin [Photo  Cedit: H.Greene]

World Peace Violin [Photo Cedit: H.Greene]

  • In October, we reported that violinist Scarlet Rivera would be recording a special piece using Rev. Patrick McCollum’s sacred violin. The recording is now posted on YouTube and features Rivera playing a composition written by Yuval Ron specifically for McCollum’s violin. The piece is entitled “Voice of Peace.”
  • Last week Patheos Pagan Blog, A Sense of Place, welcomed a new contributor. James Lindenschmidt has been Pagan for more than 20 years and “feeds his spirit by bonding with his ecosystem.” Originally from the midwest, he now lives in “a small place in the woods” in Northern New England. His inaugural post, entitled “By Way of Introduction,” was published on Dec. 24.

That is it for now. Have a great day.

[Remember our Fall Fund Drive is still going on. Your support and your donation is what make our work possible. If you like reading our articles and commentary daily, please consider donating today and help keep The Wild Hunt going for another year. Thank You.]

On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) rejected the appeal of Ohio science teacher John Freshwater, who was fired for teaching Creationism in the public school system. The case, Freshwater v. Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education, first made its way through the Ohio courts, where it was ultimately ruled that “the Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education had ‘good and just cause’ to terminate John Freshwater’s teaching contract.” When the appeal reached the Supreme Court, the justices rejected it, thereby, allowing the Ohio court’s opinion to stand.

vernon_logoThis case is a recent example of a public school system becoming the playing field for a tug of war match between secularism and religion. According to Americans United (AU), the teacher not only taught Creationism in the classroom, but he displayed and handed-out religious material, and also performed surveys of students’ religious beliefs. AU also notes that the teacher was “accused of using an electronic device (a Tesla coil) to burn a cross into a student’s arm.”

Although the Ohio courts ruled that it was legal for Freshwater to place his personal Bible on the desk, his actions were otherwise out of line. AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan said, “Freshwater was using his position to foist his religious beliefs onto impressionable students. The courts rightfully put a stop to that.”

For Pagan and Heathen parents or others practicing minority religions, there may come a time when religion is “foisted” upon their children within the public school environment. In most cases, the situation is likely an unthinking act, and indicative of a changing culture or shift in demographics. Minor missteps do happen and can often be remedied through conversations, education and awareness. Unfortunately, in some instances, such as the Ohio case above, the acts are blatant attempts at promoting a single religion.

The Satanic Temple's Children's Activity Book

Created by The Satanic Temple

Last year, Florida’s Orange County School Board allowed The World Changers of Florida to distribute Bibles to their students. After being sued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Central Florida Freethought Community, the school board approved the distribution of other religious material, which now includes pamphlets on Atheism and the Satanic Temple’s coloring book called “The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities.”

Similarly, the Madison County School Board in Georgia allowed a privately funded religious monument to be erected outside a high school football team’s field house. According to local news, the statue reads, “Romans 8:31: ‘If God be for us who can be against us?’ and Philippians 4:13: ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.’ ” Last month, the school board was contacted by both the American Humanist Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation and is now facing a potential lawsuit.

In all three of these cases, the intention and, therefore the violation, is very clear. However, not all cases are quite as “cut and dry.” Over the past fifteen years, a national organization called “The Good News Club,” has been establishing after-school enrichment programs within public school buildings. With the growing number of working parents, these in-school extracurricular programs have become increasingly popular, serving a very needed purpose for modern families.

However, The Good News Club is a division of The Child Evangelism Fellowship and has a clear and direct religious initiative. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that the club, and others like it, can legally hold after-school meetings within public school buildings. (The Good News Club v. Milford Central High School)  Despite that ruling, the club’s presence continues to spark controversy.

In Portland, Oregon, a large coalition has recently formed with the aim of stopping the Good News Club’s in-school activities. According to The Oregonian, its formation was sparked when Katherine Stewart published her book called The Good News Club: The Religious Right’s stealth assault on American Children.

Due to the SCOTUS ruling, that situation is not easy to legally negotiate. In an interview with The Oregonian, ACLU David Fidanque said, “I don’t know that there is a bright line anymore.” While acknowledging the club’s legal right to be in the school, he expressed real concern saying:

Keeping the government out of religious affairs is the single most important thing we can do to protect religious freedom in this country. If we allow our government institutions to endorse particular religious viewpoints, or even to promote religion in general over non-religion that is a threat to every form of religion.

1969339_231559560385952_2907068694561940975_nEven if The Good News Club is staying within its constitutional rights, Fidanque’s concerns are justified when looking at other similar situations. Growing in popularity in Georgia is another after-school religious club called Rise UP. The organizers make no effort to mask their affiliation with area schools. The website advertises, “Several other local elementary schools expressed interest in starting a similar program. We were excited about the possibility of partnering with these other parents and schools… there are new schools joining the RISE UP! Team as each school year starts – RISE UP! has a total of 9 elementary schools participating!” Did the schools ask to join or did the club ask to use the space?  Does that distinction matter?

Another way school systems intentionally or unintentionally allow religious speak into their public space is through visiting authors. Schools often hold assemblies during which a writer might speak, entertain, and read from his or her latest book. It is a very common occurrence and, in most cases, quite innocuous.

However, when that author writes with a strong religious directive, like popular Christian author Bryan Davis, the assembly could become problematic. Davis’ books reflect a deep connection to his own personal theology. While his work is certainly fitting for church assemblies, is it appropriate for public school children? Is it constitutionally legal for Davis to be speaking about and selling books that openly promote the celebration of one’s “God-given talents” and overtly discuss “faith, prayer and redemption” within the public school system? Interestingly, two of the participating middle schools are in Orange County, Florida, where the Bibles are being distributed.

These are only a few recent examples of cases in which an uncomfortable situation could arise for Pagan, Heathen or other families practicing a minority religion. There are many others situations from the minor missteps by a well-meaning teacher to the blatant promotion of a single religion. On, parent Niki Whiting described her own encounter:

For a few brief weeks when we sent my son to the neighborhood kindergarten we had to deal with his confusion around the Pledge of Allegiance. I was surprised that this was still said in schools. He came home and asked why the school was trying to make him Christian. Already, in his (then) 5 short years of life, he knew that when people say ‘God’ they are mostly referring to Yahweh. “Don’t they know that the world is full of gods?” he asked. No, no, my son, they do not.

pagans_and_the_law_mainWhile every situation doesn’t need a lawyer, there may be times when a friendly email is just not enough. What should a parent do in such situations?  In her book Pagans and the Law, lawyer Dana Eilers suggests, “A basic understanding of the Constitution, the First Amendment, and their history is essential to grasping the enormity of religious freedom.” Her book lays out the basics as they pertain specifically to Pagans. She writes, “It is highly recommended that everyone read this document, boring as it appears. It is what stands between you and 10 thousand years of discrimination, persecution, and darkness.”

Another resource is Lady Liberty League. Co-founder Rev. Selena Fox has this recommendation:

Documentation is essential. Keep a log with dates and details of what has happened and what has been done to express concerns and get positive resolution. Check into the school’s policies and processes for filing complaints and voicing concerns. Keep a copy of every written communication you make and receive regarding the situation. Share this information with individuals and organizations you contact for help.

While fighting these battles may be difficult, costly and time consuming, not every situation leads to a lengthy court battle. Byron Ballard, who has worked extensively and very successfully with North Carolina’s Buncombe County School Board, found herself in the middle of such a situation in 2011. As reported by The Wild Hunt, the school board allowed Bibles to be distributed to students and a Pagan mother protested. Ballard was an integral part of resolving the tensions and finding workable solutions. Ballard advises looking for allies, adding that some may “come from surprising places.” Some of her allies  have been leaders from mainstream religious institutions. She says:

My best advice is to stay grounded, be persistent and try to really listen to all sides of the issue at hand. This work is about rights and responsibility, about shifting cultures. But it’s actually about making public schools safe places for all children to learn and to grow into caring, compassionate adults.

[Photo Credit: Flickr's Liz cc-lic]

[Photo Credit: Flickr’s Liz cc-lic]

[Articles like the one below take time, resources, research and money. If you like our work and want to help us continue to share stories about Pagan involvement in religious freedom efforts and other similar news, please consider donating to our fall fundraising efforts and sharing our IndieGoGo link. Your contributions and support are what make our work possible. Thank you very much.]

In Florida last week, a moment happened that some members of religious minorities have been anticipating since the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) ruling on sectarian prayer at public meetings. An elected official walked out rather than hear an invocation given by a Pagan. Now, due to similar religious freedom efforts by that same Pagan, the local school board may face a lawsuit for discriminating against minority faiths.

David Suhor [Courtesy image]

David Suhor [Courtesy image]

David Suhor, who describes himself as “an APPLE Biter – that’s an Agnostic Pagan Pantheist Living Existentially and biting every apple I want to,” firmly believes that a moment of silence is the only way for public bodies to be inclusive when they incorporate prayer into meetings. He has been using the language of the Greece v Galloway SCOTUS decision to push that agenda. The court held that prayers are acceptable so long as a policy of nondiscrimination is followed.

Suhor has been repeatedly asking permission to offer a prayer before several boards in Escambia County, Florida. The video of Suhor calling to the quarters singing a prayer written by Starhawk with accompanying magical gestures quickly went viral, to the delight of Atheists and others troubled by the SCOTUS decision.

In this video, he stands before the County Commission. However, the county’s school board has repeatedly rejected his requests.

“The resistance is unique to each board,” Suhor said when reached for comment. “The County Commission and school board let each of the five commissioners choose who gives a prayer. The [school] board [members] all said no. [On the] County Commission, the chairman accepted, [but it] took a little pushback before he accepted. My goal is each and every member should be willing to be welcoming of anyone if they’re going [to have prayer, but my] goal is really a moment of silence.”

What Suhor calls “pushback” has been called “pushy and off-putting” by one of those being pushed, school board member Jeff Bergosh. In Suhor’s campaign to have the school board’s meetings follow the same prayer protocol as expected in the classroom (a moment of silence), Suhor has been theatrical. He told a local news reporter that he may choose to pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Satan if his requests continue to be denied.  On one occasion, he unrolled a prayer mat and chanted while a Christian invocation was delivered. Bergosh characterized this act as distracting, saying on his blog, “I’lll leave the room and come back after, or wear Bose noise cancelling headphones,” rather than witness “disrespectful” behavior during an invocation.

Suhor has also threatened legal action, which prompted the school board to consult its attorney, Donna Waters. “At present, I don’t see that the board has to change its past practice (of holding invocations),” Waters said, adding “that practice does carry some degree of risk for litigation.”

Suhor’s push to force local boards into abandoning the use of an opening invocation goes back long before the controversial SCOTUS decision. “The tradition of allowing each board member to choose who will give the prayer means that they tend to pick their own religion,” he said, “and I’ve sat through a lot of Christian prayers.” He points to his difficulty getting on the calendar; he did it once before at a County Commissioners’ meeting two years ago.  But he has been repeatedly rebuffed by the school board. “No one wants to stand for a minority religion,” he said.

Seal_of_Escambia_County,_FloridaWhat do other local members of those minority religions think about the firestorm Suhor has created? The reactions are generally positive, although the specific content of his prayer is sometimes questioned. While Suhor has participated in Pagan observances at a Unitarian Universalist church, he isn’t well known in the local Pagan community, being mostly solitary. Rev. Edward Livingston of the Fire Dance Church of Wicca said of Suhor:

He has never attended our church or taken part in the greater Pagan community. But not all Pagans like to work in groups or circle with others. I support his challenges to the legal and governmental system, but I also see him as doing this to make them stop using invocations and prayer, but a moment of silence instead. He has said to me he would consider all invocations and prayers outside the normal local top three religions until they change the rules. We are not as political as he is, we are a small Wiccan/Pagan church that provides a ritual 8 times a year for those who want to circle with others.

Cynthia Jurkovic is an ordained Priestess-Hierophant of the Fellowship of Isis who also lives in the panhandle of Florida. She supports Suhor’s goals, but questions his methods. Jurkovic said:

After reading the article about this incident in Escambia County, and watching the news clip from WEAR 3, I have a few thoughts to share. First, I totally agree that if prayer is to be allowed before any meeting of government bodies or other institutions, all spiritual/religious traditions should be given the opportunity to offer a prayer.

Likewise, I support David Suhor’s right to step up to offer Pagan prayers at these government functions. Where I feel he took a wrong turn is in what he presented at this meeting. Invoking the elements is not in alignment with the intention of speaking a prayer to a higher power, however you name it, for wisdom and guidance in decision making, and working toward the highest good regarding the outcome of the meeting.

I thought it was ridiculous that he sang elemental quarter calls. He was not there to cast a ritual circle. The elements are not the same as deities. Why did he not say a prayer to Pagan deities suitable to the intention of the meeting? It appears to me that by coming before the assembled people and then singing elemental quarter calls, complete with gesticulation, that he was purposefully irritating and provoking a dramatic response. This was completely inappropriate!

For Suhor’s part, he’s a musician, and explains that he’s more comfortable singing in public than speaking. “I wasn’t going over the top,” he said, “just expressing as fully as I knew by calling the quarters.” Identifying as a Pantheist, his view on the divine nature of the elements differs from Jurkovic’s. In response to the criticism that the invocation was too long, Suhor responds that he’s sat through many Christian prayers that were longer.

Was he “purposefully irritating and provoking a dramatic response,” as Jurkovic believes? He told one reporter, “In a way I would like for other people to experience what it’s like when I go to a meeting and am asked to pray against my conscience.”

And what about that County Commissioner who walked out? He told a television news reporter, “I’m just not going to have a Pagan or Satanic minister pray for me.” Commissioner Wilson Robertson was not able to be reached for this story, so it is unclear if he’s conflated those two terms, ascribing them both to Suhor, or if he doesn’t care either way.

As for the Escambia County School Board, it continues to be recalcitrant. The Wild Hunt will be watching this story as it develops.

Crisis hit the Florida Pagan community this week when locals became aware that Gavin and Yvonne Frost, founders of the Church and School of Wicca, were scheduled presenters at the annual Beltane Florida Pagan Gathering 2014 (FPG.)  In the past, the Frosts’ presence at FPG has generated a moderate number of complaints. Attendees and past headliners, such as T.Thorn Coyle, have expressed concern over specific content in The Witch’s Bible (reprinted  later as The Good Witch’s Bible) describing the religious initiation practices for sexually-mature minors. This year the Frosts FPG invitation sparked more than just voiced concerns. It led to decisive action.


Ray Romanowicz, former Division Coordinator, explains:

Monday I was checking with the workshop coordinator to see if she was doing OK … and she mentioned that the only issue she has [was] figuring out which of the preferred workshop locations to put the Frosts. I was stunned and taken aback to hear the Frosts were coming back …

In 2013 Romanowicz openly stated that if the Frosts ever returned to FPG he would resign as coordinator. On April 1 that is just what he did. He explains “I could not in good conscience be a part of any entity that allows [the Frosts] … A stand must be made someplace and I see it as here for me.” He immediately informed his community saying, “I really felt I had no other choice other than going as public as I could to shine the light on who would be speaking at FPG.”

As word spread Florida Pagans began to organize over social media. Discussions were hosted in a new private Facebook group called FrostFreeFPG. It was later renamed to Pagans for Change to reflect a more positive and global intent.

Rayna Templebee

Rayna Templebee

Concerned attendees also expressed their concerns directly to the Board via email. As Rayna Templebee describes, the response was always “the same generic reply that dismissed [their] concerns.” Rayna goes on to say, “I asked the TEG board to open their hearts to the many members of the FPG community who have survived abuse or had it touch their lives and to create a safe space by dis-inviting the Frosts to present. I never asked for them to be banned from the festival, but I respectfully suggested that they not be given an official platform for teaching as leaders or elders.”

Over the next 24 hours Rayna helped facilitate the writing of a “joint resolution to the FPG Board.” Using contributions from over a dozen people, Pagans for Change authored this official resolution stating in part:

We stand together, as modern Pagans, to urge the FPG Board to listen to our concerns and to help host and foster discussion about this critical issue. We call for a removal of the Frosts as presenters at FPG and a ban on any distribution or vending of their materials. It’s past time that our beloved community take a stand against those who advocate abuse. Silence = complicity.

While that was in process, a heated debate erupted on the the FPG Facebook page. On April 2 the Board opted to delete all of these posts saying:

Hot button issues tend to attract spectators and it has always been one of our greatest duties to protect the anonymity of our guests and staff especially those who are still in the broom closet. This is not an effort to prevent anyone from expressing their feelings about this issue whether positive or negative and we will not attempt to prevent people from posting elsewhere.

Later that same day, the FPG Board published its own statement in response to concerns stating:

Florida Pagan Gathering Beltaine 2014 will be hosting all of our headliners and workshop presenters currently signed up to present workshops, events and concerts. We want to assure everyone that FPG and TEG never has, and never will condone assault of any nature, be it verbal, physical or sexual. When our guests and staff are at FPG we work with our Guardians and fellow staff members to keep everyone as safe as possible and we respond to threats immediately.

Meanwhile Pagans for Change created a new public Facebook page in order to gather support for their cause. To date the joint resolution has been “signed” by 254 individuals and organizations including The Treasure Coast Pagan Pride Project, Everglades Moon Local Council (CoG), Moon Path Pagans, Officers of Avalon, Circle of the Moonlit Sea, Central Florida Pagan Association and more.

10176106_261906210659016_1855122944_nThe situation turned into what appeared to be a standoff as frustrations mounted on both sides. Florida resident and FPG Board member, Medea described the crisis as a “moral panic” saying, “What’s ironic is that the very thing [moral panic] that caused FPG to come into existence is the same thing that the community is facing today.”

As the hours ticked by more and more people voiced their opinions via social media. Vendor and presenter Gypsey Teague announced that she would no longer be attending FPG on ethical grounds. Orion Foxwood signed the resolution and added:

Orion Foxwood

Orion Foxwood

Some reactions to the resignation of a Florida Pagan Gathering staffer have been very narrow in their understanding of the impact a leader or author has on its community. The undeniable publishing of statements that encourage sex with minors as a “supposed traditional practice” encourages those who have these tendencies to follow them and feel they have an endorsement for it. Waiting for an arrest to stop such behavior is like saying that we need not prevent war until a bomb is dropped. With all due respect that approach is ill informed. There are two types of social change agents; activists and planners. The FPG staffer’s resignation became an activist’s call to action. Now, comes social planning where we all must foster systems to prevent harm and encourage well-being.

Then the standoff broke when an unknown individual took it upon himself to directly contact the host facility, Retreats By the Lake. Using both Twitter and Facebook, this person informed the facility’s owners that “Florida Pagans [were] embracing Sex-With-Children Advocates.” His very public statement understandably caused real concern for the child-friendly camp facility. They immediately contacted the FPG Board who then issued a second public statement:

Originally, we had a resolution where instead of hosting workshops there was going to be an open discussion with the Frosts … Unfortunately with the attack on the camp, and its owners, we cannot, in good conscience, allow the Frosts to come, even as private guests.

In response Pagans for Change emphatically stressed that this unknown person was not one of them and that his approach was “damaging to the entire community.” They added, “We support the Board’s request that it handle its relationship with the camp… We agree with the FPG Board that we need to offer each other love, support, compassion and honesty.”

After the latest turn-of-events, Ann Marie, President of the board of directors of the Temple of Earth Gathering (TEG), stressed the need for community healing in a final statement sent directly to The Wild Hunt. On behalf of the FPG Board, she said:

At the coming festival, in place of workshops that will now never be presented, we instead will attempt to hold some workshops and rituals focused on healing the community, because the pressing need right now is for us all to remember we are about one another, and our collective care for our community.

Many locals agree that the healing process does now need to begin. FPG has been and still is a beloved Florida event that is one of the center pieces in Florida’s Pagan festival life. However not everyone knows how to proceed or is even ready. Coral Bruce, a member of Spiraling Heart Coven, says, “I think [the Board] handled [the situation] poorly. They did not respond appropriately to the concerns of the community. Yes, there needs to be healing. I want to heal but I don’t know how yet.”

Camping at FPG Samhain 2013

Camping at FPG Samhain 2013

Marla Roberson, a Georgian elder and regular attendee from South Carolina agrees saying, “I have a lot of sympathy for the Board – what they have to put on and what they have to do. But I think they need to listen to their attendees … [Now] We do need to heal but I also don’t know how.” Neither Marla or Coral plans to attend FPG this year.

Rayna Templebee, on the other hand, will be attending. She says:

I had a workshop accepted that was already going to touch on sexual boundaries and ethics … so I look forward to offering that to the community.  I want to work from the inside to model a healthy and safe sexuality for the modern Craft.  I honor the work the TEG board and staff do to put on FPG and I know we can all help improve the way communication … is shared with attendees.

The situation is still on-going as new threats of lawsuits begin to appear in social media. Yesterday on Twitter the Frosts’ daughter called the protesters’ actions “illegal and bigoted.” The Frosts themselves have yet to respond to the situation on their own blog. As for Florida Pagans, FPG will go on as planned April 30-May 4 while its broken community finds ways of rebuilding and healing.

Will concerns raised in the sunshine state follow the Frosts throughout the year as they travel to other communities? Will these global ethics and safety concerns raised by Pagans for Change unleash a dialog elsewhere? Will event organizers nation-wide reevaluate their own communication processes and their relationship with their attendees to allow for more open communication concerning ethics and safety?

As the story develops, we will continue to keep you informed

Full statements:
Joint Resolution to the FPG Board
FPG Board Statement #1
FPG Board Statement #2
Pagans For Change Response
FPG Board Statement #3