Archives For France

“One day earlier Benjamin would have got through without any trouble; one day later the people in Marseille would have known that for the time being it was impossible to pass through Spain. Only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible.” – Hannah Arendt

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin [Photo Credit: Gisela Freund]

The ‘catastrophe’ that Arendt refers to was the tragic and somewhat mysterious death of Walter Benjamin on the night of September 25, 1940, only hours after crossing the border into Spain in an attempt to escape the Nazis. Although there is some question as to how he actually died, the most accepted version of his death is that he committed suicide by overdosing on morphine in his room at the Francia Hotel in Portbou.

At the time of his alleged suicide, Benjamin and his two companions were under police surveillance along with another group of refugees from France. They had arrived in Portbou earlier that evening after hiking over the Pyrenées from occupied France, only to learn that they were being denied entrance into Spain. They were to be deported back to France and handed over to the Vichy government the next day.

Despite assurances from members of the other refugee party that they could potentially bribe their way out of it, Benjamin took a fatal dose of morphine that night, after having been on the run for seven years. It was a dose that he had been carrying around since the burning of the Reichstag. This was seemingly an act of both desperation and defiance. He was not only more than aware of what his fate would be should he fall into Nazi hands, but he had also apparently decided long before that moment that he would choose death by his own hand over such a fate.

*   *   *

I am not much of a hiker, and I have never hiked a mountain before. I’m in decent enough shape considering that I don’t work out or engage in any type of regular strenuous activity, but I also struggle with chronic fatigue and nerve pain which often keeps me from outdoor activities. And I definitely knew on one level that the trail that I was so determined to hike was a bit out of my league in terms of experience.

But I also knew that 
Walter Benjamin was in much worse shape than either my friend Rhyd or I. And, every time I dwelt on the fact that he completed the route under the circumstances that he did, and in the poor physical condition that he was in, it served as ample justification for dismissing my own worries. The pull I was feeling to take the hike was strong and not fully of this earth, and I had recognized for many months that the trek was an essential part of our pilgrimage to Europe. We both recognized the importance of tracing his footsteps as a tribute to him, and that importance far outweighed any concerns that I had about my abilities.

At the time that Benjamin escaped from France over the Pyrenées, he was forty-eight years old and suffered from a heart condition, having been in delicate health since childhood. He had been living in poverty and exile throughout most of the 1930s, which had greatly exacerbated problems with both his physical and mental health. When he made his escape, he took with him a heavy briefcase that contained an unknown manuscript – one that he insisted was more important than his own life.

We packed much lighter than Walter Benjamin did, bringing only some food for lunch, two bottles of water, a half-empty bottle of Orangina, a sweatshirt, and our phones. I also took a small notebook and a solar charger, which I kept in a small side bag, while Rhyd carried the majority of our gear in his rucksack.

*   *   *

By summer 1940, Walter Benjamin had been in exile from his native Germany for seven years. He first fled to Paris in spring 1933, understanding the significance of the Reichstag fire long before most recognized what that event would mean for the future of Germany. As a Jew, a Marxist, and a cultural critic, he knew he was in danger for many reasons, and he sought refuge throughout France as well as briefly in Denmark with Bertolt Brecht. He was a heretic on the run, desperately trying to write and publish as much as he could while both his economic and physical livelihood fell into ever increasing danger.

In 1938, Germany revoked the citizenship status of Jewish citizens, and overnight Benjamin found himself to be a stateless man. Eventually the French caught up to him, and he was imprisoned in a French internment camp in 1939. After his release was secured with the assistance of friends in early 1940, he returned to Paris, where he stayed until French defenses were defeated by the Wehrmacht.

Benjamin then fled Paris for Lourdes the day before the Germans took the city. The subsequent armistice between Germany and Vichy France contained an extradition clause that denied exit visas for all German refugees in France and required the French to surrender anyone who had been granted asylum. Overnight, Benjamin was suddenly trapped in a country where he was a wanted man with no legal means of escape.

Knowing that he needed to leave France in order to save his life, he eventually left Lourdes for Marseille, where he managed to secure an entrance visa to the United States in August 1940. While in Marseille, he met up with his old friend Hannah Arendt and then reunited with Hans Fittko, who he had met the winter before when they had both been held at a French internment camp in Vernuche.

The mountains.

The mountains [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

After learning that Benjamin was trying to escape, Hans Fittko told him that the only potential route to safety was to make it to Spain without having to go through a border crossing, and then to cross Spain to Portugal and exit Portugal on a boat to the United States. Fittko then encouraged Benjamin to contact his wife Lisa, who had recently left Marseille for Port-Vendres on the border with Spain with the intention of finding a smuggling route over the mountains.

*   *   *

Every single website we had checked, including the official tourist site for the city of Portbou, stated that the hike was a 7 km, three-to-four hour trek. 
My instinct told me from the beginning that it was longer than that, and while my general rule is to trust my instinct, I also recognize (usually in hindsight) that there are times when I ignore that hunch for what later is revealed to be an important reason.

Looking back at this specific instance, the reason I ignored that hunch is very clear. Had I known how long the trek actually was, I likely wouldn’t have attempted it.

But having convinced myself at least on the surface that it was a 7 km hike based on the information that we found online, we planned for that amount of time and distance. We slept in that morning at our campsite near Perpignan and timed our travel so that we would arrive in Banyuls-sur-Mer around noon. Based on that schedule, we assumed that we would be in Portbou by four or five at the latest. We took just enough food for lunch and about three liters of water.

*   *   *

The route over the Pyrenées was a smuggling trail known as the Lister Route, named after Enrique Líster, a general in the Spanish Republican Army. Lister led his troops to safety over the Pyrenées to France at the end of the Spanish Civil War when Spain fell to the Fascists. While few knew of the route’s existence, one of the people who knew it well was Vincent Azéma, the mayor of Banyuls-sur-Mer, one of the first towns on the French side of the Pyrenées. Azéma was a socialist who had also been sympathetic toward the Republican cause in Spain.

A little over a year after Spain fell and Lister made his escape, the Vichy government took power in France. Azéma wanted to help those who were seeking to escape the Nazis, and his knowledge came in handy the day that Lisa Fittko showed up at his office seeking a route over the mountains. Like Walter Benjamin, Fittko was also a stateless Jew who was wanted by the Nazis. A dedicated anti-Fascist, Lisa and her husband Hans had also been on the run for years and had been working with the underground Resistance for much of that time. The Fittkos had also made their way down to Marseille not long after the Vichy government took power.

In September 1940, Lisa Fittko headed down to the border with Spain with the intention of securing a smuggling route across the Pyrénees. After only a few days in Port-Vendres, some dockworkers told her that the mayor of Banyuls-sur-Mer, Monsieur Azéma, would be able to help her find a route over the mountains. She went to see Azéma soon after, who discussed the route with her in great detail and gave her a hand-drawn map of the path.

*   *   *

I had never heard of Lisa Fittko until she died in early 2005. I had come across an article about her in the New York Times, which ran a story about her life and death and also mentioned Walter Benjamin’s tragic ending. I had heard of Benjamin before, but had never read his work, and it was that story in the Times which first prompted me to seek out his writings.

By that summer, I had immersed myself in his works, hunting down everything I could. It was the same summer that I ended up sharing my apartment with a young woman from southern France who was interning at a production company in Manhattan. The fact that she was from Perpignan, not far from Banyuls-sur-Mer, didn’t strike me as the least bit meaningful or synchronistic at the time. But all the same, that summer was dominated by two distinct perspectives: her observations and views of New York, and the work of Walter Benjamin.

Over the years, Benjamin’s work has undoubtedly influenced my thinking more significantly than that of any other writer, and nowadays I regard him not only as a profound thinker but also as both a prophet and an ancestor with whom I have forged a working relationship over time. And although the pull that I felt was much stronger overall than the individual parts that I could comprehend, the level of influence and relationship that I feel toward Benjamin was the primary reason why 
I felt the overwhelming need to trace the path of his fated escape path over the Lister Route during my pilgrimage to Europe.

It seemed fitting that my friend from Perpignan, who I hadn’t seen since that summer in New York eleven years earlier, was the one who kindly offered to drive us down to Banyuls-sur-Mer in the midst of transit and gas station strikes throughout France. She took us all the way to Puig del Mas, a neighborhood just south of Banyuls-sur-Mer, where the route actually began, and dropped us off on a side street that bordered the beginning of the mountains. We thanked her profusely and stumbled up the hill toward the end of the road.

*   *   *

On Sept. 24, 1940, Walter Benjamin knocked on Lisa Fittko’s door in Port-Vendres and told her that he had been sent by her husband and that he needed to escape to Spain.

Having met with Mayor Azéma only a few days earlier, Fittko quickly agreed to lead him over the mountains. She also agreed when he asked to take along two acquaintances who he had met in Marseille, a woman named Henny Gurland and her teenage son, who were also German refugees seeking to escape France. Fittko made it clear to Benjamin that it would be a strenuous climb, and that she did not know the route and that they would be taking a risk, but he seemed unconcerned. He stressed that to not make the attempt would be the “real risk.”

Later that day, Benjamin and Fittko left Port-Vendres for Banyuls-sur-Mer on foot, walking down back roads in order to avoid the growing police stops being conducted on both trains and auto routes. Fittko wanted to meet with Mayor Azéma again to go over the details of the route once more and to see if he had any additional advice or suggestions.

*   *   *

After Stéphanie dropped us off at Puig del Mas, we walked up the hill a bit but quickly realized that we couldn’t find the beginning of the route. I had downloaded a GPS map of the route onto my phone that morning, but it vanished from my screen and then refused to reload as we walked to the end of the road toward the vineyards.

Luckily, we saw a man exiting his car and walking up the hill. Figuring that he was a local, Rhyd asked him if he knew where the route was. The man was more than happy to walk us down the hill a bit, and then pointed us to the right and told us to look for a staircase.

We went down the staircase and through a narrow path, and found ourselves surrounded by vineyards.


We then walked for a few minutes up an easy path, and looking up at the trail before us, we decided to stop for lunch before tackling the steep terrain. We were surrounded by vineyards, some so old that the vines were literal trunks, bearing a much greater resemblance to dwarf trees than any type of vines  I had ever seen before. I kept looking down at our food, and then up at the terraced vineyards, and it hit me halfway through our lunch that what we were eating, while quite unintentional, was very similar to the traditional meal that vineyard workers in the region were accustomed to eating – bread soaked in olive oil with some meat and cheese on the side.

After washing our food down with some water, we packed up our gear up again and headed upward through the vineyards.

*   *   *

When Walter Benjamin and Lisa Fittko sat down with Mayor Azéma that afternoon, he advised them to take a practice run in the daylight before actually hiking the full route. He recommended that they hike up past the vineyards and as far as the tree line, turn around and head back to town and check back in with him. Then, they could attempt the route in full the following day.

And so they set out on the route on the afternoon of September 24, only to learn quickly that the path was much steeper and more treacherous than Azéma had thought. Benjamin had brought a heavy briefcase with him, which Fittko offered to help him carry. When she asked him what was inside the briefcase and why he had brought it on a trial run, he told her that it contained his new manuscript and that he dare not risk being separated from it because its contents must be saved at all costs.

It is more important than I am, more important than myself,” he told her.

It took them several hours to reach the tree line, and by the time they hit that point Benjamin was so fatigued and run down that he refused to turn back. After unsuccessfully trying to convince him to return to town, Fittko headed back to Banyuls-sur-Mer in order to prepare for the full hike the next day. Meanwhile, Walter Benjamin proceeded to spend the night, the last full night of his life, alone and exposed on the mountain at the base of the tree line with only his briefcase.

*   *   *

After Rhyd and I made it up past the first plot of vineyards, we came across an elderly couple hiking up the trail. They were equipped with hiking poles, which admittedly made me pause for a moment. Hiking poles? Do we need those too? What have we gotten ourselves into?

We walked behind them for a moment, until we came across an intersection in the paths. They were following the road, but another path went straight up into the mountains, and my instinct told me that the path straight up was the one we were supposed to take. And yet, we were without a map.

“Excuse me,” I asked them. “Do you know which path is the Chemin Walter Benjamin?”

He pointed to the path straight up, and then to the markings at the base of the path. “See the two black lines? Those are what you need to follow.”


[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I thanked him, and looked at him with both gratitude and wonder. Of all the material I had read on the route, not one source had mentioned the relevant trail markings. I expressed my thanks again as they walked off down the road, and we looked at the path before us, both realizing at the same time that this would be anything but an easy hike.

It also didn’t take us long to realize that especially without a working GPS map, those trail markings were absolutely crucial when it came to staying on the path. As the path kept twisting and turning on our way up toward the top of the tree line, it occurred to me numerous times that if we hadn’t run into that couple we would have been hopelessly lost.

*   *   *

After leaving Walter Benjamin at the clearing on the mountain the night before, Lisa Fittko once again started up the trail before sunrise the next day with Henny Gurland and her son in tow. It took them about three hours or so to reach Benjamin, who was still lying down in the exact place where Fittko had left him the night before.

The party quickly discovered that Benjamin had a talent for navigation, and he expertly directed them, keeping them on the right path as they climbed further and further upward. Everyone took turns carrying Benjamin’s briefcase as they climbed toward the summit. On account of his heart condition, he insisted on taking a minute’s rest for every ten minutes walked.

Despite such a disciplined rest schedule, Benjamin stopped not long before the summit, insisting he couldn’t go any further, and both Fittko and Gurland literally dragged him up the incline to the next resting place not far from the top. A short time later, the group finally reached the summit.

It had taken them between four and five hours from the point of the clearing for Benjamin’s party to reach the summit, and seven to eight hours overall since Fittko, Gurland, and her son had left Banyuls-sur-Mer early that morning. But finally they had reached Spain.

*   *   *

A few hours after parting ways with the elderly couple, Rhyd and I finally spotted a sign that pointed toward the summit and stated the distance. I realized at that moment that the websites were all exactly half-right. It was 7 km and three to four hours to the summit at Querroig. But it would then likely be 7 km and another three to four hours to get back down and into Portbou.

It was now mid-afternoon, and the breeze and the shade of the cork-oaks made the hot sun bearable. As we continued to climb, a certain amount of diffused worry built up between us. Both time and our ability to stay hydrated were subtle but ever-growing concerns that we managed to communicate lightheartedly, but regularly, to each other without ever quite naming our exact thoughts for what they were.

We started to monitor our water supply, already halfway gone, taking smaller and more deliberately timed sips with an unspoken understanding that we would be up on the mountain much longer than we expected. We took extra care of ourselves; stopping for breaks under trees, continuously looking behind us as inspiration and relying on the visual power of the fact that the more that Banyuls-sur-Mer shrank in the field of vision behind us, the closer we were to the top.

And yet there were feelings of hopelessness at times, feelings that reverberated from our surroundings as much as they originated from within. And those feelings, as much as I tried to block them out, kept bringing me back to the figure whose escape path we were tracing.

The summit near Querroig.

The summit near Querroig. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

After four hours or so we finally reached the summit. We took a few moments to rest and to take in the beauty of it all, but we then quickly began our trip down in order to try to make up for lost time.

*   *   *

Lisa Fittko had originally planned to leave Walter Benjamin and the others at the summit, as she did not have the proper paperwork and could not risk being caught on Spanish soil. But once she reached the top, she was concerned about their ability to navigate the treacherous downhill terrain. So she guided the three refugees down the narrow mountain paths.

Not long after they began their descent, they stumbled upon a greenish pool of water, obviously dirty and polluted. Walter Benjamin immediately bent over and stopped to drink, as the party had run out of water by that point.

You can’t drink that,” she told him. You could catch typhoid fever…

Yes, perhaps,” he replied. But you must understand: the worst thing that could happen is that I might die of typhoid fever – after I have crossed the border. The Gestapo can no longer arrest me, and the manuscript will have reached safety. You must pardon me, please…

And so he drank, and then they continued on downhill.

*   *   *

As we began our descent, I noticed that our surroundings were suddenly completely different than the terrain that we had been hiking for the previous four hours. The flora was different. The plants were different. Cork oaks and scotch broom had given way to cacti and succulents, and water could be heard rushing below. And the buzzing of bees was a consistent and strong presence throughout the entirety of our descent through the mountain brush. At times the bees were louder than our own voices, and while it faded in and out it served as a dominating chorus throughout the trek down to the road.


[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

While the Chemin Walter Benjamin on the French side of the path had been very casually marked, often with handmade signs, and was nearly impossible to navigate unless one knew what trail marks to look for, the Ruta Walter Benjamin on the Spanish side of the mountain was much more ‘official’ and organized. Every kilometer or so there was a waymarking sign, usually accompanied by a plaque sponsored by the Catalonian government. Each marking detailed an aspect of Benjamin’s life while featuring quotes and graphics. The trail blazes, which had guided us from the beginning, were still present and constant. However, the new signage took out much of the guesswork and deliberation that had characterized our way up the French side of the mountain.

*   *   *

Lisa Fittko led the party downhill for another hour or so, until they finally reached a road at the end of a cliff-wall that led down toward a town below. Portbou was now directly in their sight and, at this point, Fittko bade them farewell, instructing the group to take the first train to Lisbon as soon as they had their entry stamps.

A sigh pointing towards Portbou. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

A sigh pointing towards Portbou. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Benjamin, Gurland, and her son continued down the road to Portbou, while Fittko headed back up the mountain toward Banyuls-sur-Mer. The road that wound down from the mountains led directly into town, and they followed it through the train tunnel to the downtown promenade and then up to the train station, where they surrendered themselves to authorities with the expectation of being granted entrance.

It was there at the train station where they learned their fate. It was at this place where police told them that they were being denied entry into Spain and would be deported back to France the very next morning. They were put up at the Francia Hotel for the night under police surveillance, and Walter Benjamin allegedly committed suicide that night in his hotel room, believing that his luck had finally run out for good. His briefcase subsequently vanished.

*   *   *

It was at that same juncture between the path and the road where Lisa Fittko bade farewell to Walter Benjamin and his party, the same juncture where she had finally decided that they could make it the rest of the way on their own, that Rhyd and I briefly got lost.

I’m generally an adventurous sort that usually deals with being lost without much fear. But, at that point it was only a few hours until sunset; we had next to no water left, and we had already been on the mountain for nearly seven hours. We were not thinking clearly; our judgment clouded by the combination of fatigue, fear, and thirst. And, it was this lack of clear thinking that led to a few mistakes and a few moments of panic.

There was a fork in the road, one way headed slightly up and one way headed slightly down, both pointing in the general direction of Portbou. Those who know a thing or two about mountains probably would have deferred to common sense at that point: if you’re heading down, pick the road that goes down. But we are not mountain dwellers, nor regular hikers, and for the first time since we started, there wasn’t a waymarking sign or a trail blaze to be seen. So for some reason we decided that the road that headed upward was the way to go. And as we continued on, ever doubtful, that feeling of hopelessness once again crept in.


[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I didn’t learn until after I returned to Perpignan and studied the terrain at length that it was only another wrong turn and a dead-end that kept us from walking straight back to France. Once we hit the dead end, we briefly argued over what to do next, and I took stock at that moment of how much my judgment was compromised and decided to defer to Rhyd’s judgment.

He pointed to another road below, stressing that even though it might technically be off the trail, the priority at that moment was to get off the mountain before sunset. I was doubtful but I agreed nonetheless, and we headed down that road only to discover within the next hour that it had actually put us right back on the trail, exactly where we needed to be in order to get to Portbou.

*   *   *

A few days after Lisa Fittko returned to Banyuls-sur-Mer, and before she had learned of Benjamin’s untimely fate, she was approached by Varian Fry of the Emergency Rescue Committee, who had heard of her success in smuggling Benjamin over the Pyrénees.

Fry and his associate had set up a legal French relief organization, the Centre Américain de Secours, with the intention of using it as a cover for smuggling Jews and other refugees out of France. Fry had both connections and funding, and wanted Fittko’s help in establishing a smuggling route that could potentially be lead by refugees themselves.

She agreed, and over the course of the next few years, Fittko and the Emergency Rescue Committee saved thousands of lives by leading folks over the Pyrenées via the Lister Route to Spain. Their efforts went down in history, and the Fittkos as well as Varian Fry are remembered to this day as some of the many heroes of the Resistance. The Fittkos finally fled France for Cuba in 1942 with the help of Varian Fry, and eventually settled in the United States.

And it wasn’t until almost forty years later, during a telephone conversation with Benjamin’s closest friend Gershom Scholem, that Lisa Fittko learned the fate of the mysterious briefcase that contained Benjamin’s final manuscript. She had always assumed that it had reached safe hands, especially given its importance, and was shocked and upset to learn that it had vanished.

*   *   *

Our original plan had been to reach Portbou by four or five in the afternoon at the latest, where we would then take a taxi to Cerbère, the very first town on the French side of the border, and then a train back to Perpignan where we were staying. The last train from Cerbère was a quarter past eight, and if we did not make it we would be stranded in either Portbou or Cerbère for the night.


A plaque near the train station in Portbou. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

After following the road down the mountain for a while, we finally started to see houses and we could also see Portbou straight ahead. We both felt a sense of relief, having held a mutual, muted tension for several hours at that point. But with that relief also came a heightened sense that we needed to hurry, as it was already past seven at that point.

Signs of civilization where suddenly everywhere, from cars to dogs to a huge reservoir right below us. Without realizing it, due to our mutual state of light-headed and fatigued relief combined with the need to hurry, we followed the rest of Benjamin’s exact path into town without either map or sign as a guide. As we walked down the road toward town, we kept looking back at the mountain, watching as the fog quickly drew in. We had made it off the mountain just in time.

We continued through the tunnel, down the promenade, and to the train station where Benjamin and his party turned themselves in to the police. And while we were only seeking a taxi, not an entry visa, there was something in the moment, connected to the themes of hopelessness and escape, that lingered with meaning.

After a few minutes’ worth of location-based and linguistic stumbling, we finally hailed a cab to Cerbère and then caught the very last train back to Perpignan.

*     *     *

While the official story is that Walter Benjamin died by suicide, there is an alternate, much more recent theory of the last day of Benjamin’s life, which many dismiss as conspiracy theory. Yet, at the same time, it is surprisingly supported by a combination of evidence and inconsistencies. This theory claims that he was murdered by either the Gestapo or by agents working for Josef Stalin, who had learned of his escape plans and were determined not to allow him to leave Europe.

Both the Gestapo and Stalin had adequate reasons to want him dead. Not only was he a Jew and a Marxist attempting to escape the Nazis, but he had also apparently offended Stalin quite personally with his most recent and final work, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Released in early 1940, “Theses” was a biting and influential critique of orthodox Marxism, and it was viewed by many as a betrayal of the tradition as well as a direct attack on the Soviet regime. There was also precedent for such an action on the part of Stalin. Leon Trotsky had been assassinated in Mexico City only a month earlier by an NKVD agent who was acting under direct orders from Stalin.

There are several oddities about his death that suggest that it was other than a suicide. First, theret was the suicide note itself, which many believe to be falsified because it had been written in French as opposed to his native German, and also contained inconsistencies regarding his location. And then there was the death certificate and related paperwork, which listed the cause of death as a stroke, not a drug overdose. There was also the fact that Benjamin was granted a Catholic burial in a Catholic cemetery, which would have been forbidden had he committed suicide. Finally, the fact that his briefcase disappeared also potentially points to a suspicious ending, especially given the degree to which he felt the need to keep its contents out of the hands of the Gestapo.

It is also notable that Portbou was a small, close-knit town and was rumored to be a Fascist stronghold with a reputation for hostility toward French and German refugees. Once Benjamin and his companions were detained, their presence in Portbou would have been anything but a secret, which created an ideal opportunity for agents of either Stalin or Hitler or anybody else for that matter who wished him dead.

How he truly died will always remain a mystery, as will the contents and the fate of the briefcase that disappeared after he perished. But his writings, his final days, and his life and death itself serve as a series of important lessons and reminders, not just of our past but our future possibilities and the potential we all hold to alter our fates through an understanding and analysis of what came before.

*   *   *

Through his life can be read the violent unfolding of the twentieth century, which destroyed not only him, but millions of others. Yet his writings envision a world not condemned to repeat its mistakes, unlike the defeatist cosmology of a Blanqui; a world in which the political subject still has recourse to revolutionary praxis, unlike the disempowering theory of a Habermas. Benjamin’s writings tell of other possibilities, models for future thinking and acting, re-encounters with the past and proposals for what might yet be to come. Such are his important living remains.” – Esther Leslie

I had known for several years now that Lisa Fittko had written a memoir about her experiences smuggling refugees over the Pyrénees, but it wasn’t until we got off that mountain and back to Perpignan that I felt an overwhelming and sudden urge to read her book. It’s almost as though I had deliberately overlooked it on one level and, yet only in hindsight, had recognized this fact, sensing that having read it would ruin my adventure somehow. But after completing the route, taking in Fittko’s recollections seemed to be a crucial piece of the puzzle which was that experience. It is akin to seeking out a book for its details after having seen the film version. After sensing and experiencing what we had over the course of the seven hours over the mountains, I felt need to fill in the potential gaps and the questions in my mind.

I ordered the book online from France, had it shipped to my home in Portland, and started to read it immediately upon my return home nearly a month after completing the hike over the Pyrénees. I was immediately taken in by her recollections, and quite blown away by both her overall story as well as by a few similarities between her experience on the mountain and our own.

Among other things, had I read Fittko’s book beforehand and known that it would be a 15km hike that would take twice as long as I assumed it would, I likely would not have attempted it. And yet learning that they had also assumed a much shorter hike brought our experience in step with Fittko and Benjamin’s in an oddly synchronistic way. In her memoir, Fittko wrote of Mayor Azéma’s “elastic” understanding of time in terms of what “a few hours” actually meant, a tendency which she noted was common in mountain dwellers. Seventy-five years later, I had discovered the same tendency in those who authored the many websites that spoke of a three-to-four hour hike. In both cases, this tendency resulted in similar experiences and conditions in terms of the non-mountain dwellers who took such advice at face value, and then proceeded to trek over the mountains.

But much more so than matters of time and distance, Fittko describes a certain disposition, a certain determination and desperation, a certain way about Benjamin that he overwhelmingly exuded in her presence throughout his last days. The sentiments in her expression and emotion were so familiar that it was though I had read her words many times before.

For tucked into her words and descriptions were the identical sentiments and thoughts that I had taken from the mountain itself that day. In tracing Walter Benjamin’s final hours, in gaining that perspective as we followed his final path and in our mirrored experiences during that journey, I feel as though I somehow collided into his spirit directly and to this day the resonance of that collision is not only lingering but ever strengthening. In following the footsteps of and paying tribute to a prophet whose heresies tragically collided with fate, what came forth was a new level of understanding, connection, and Work.


[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

   *     *     *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

As some Pagans attempt to revive ancient or indigenous religions they often rely on the work of historians, primary texts and archaeologists. For this reason, when something new pops up that challenges long held academic ideas on cultural or religious practice, we pay attention. Here are some of the new(er) finds making waves in archaeological circles.

Cave rings in Southern France Hint at Neanderthal religious rites

Archaeologists have reported on an “extraordinary discovery” in France after finding several man-made circular structures, or rings, that date back 170,000 years to the time Neanderthals lived in the area.

The rings were constructed out of stalagmites from the Bruniquel Cave in France’s southern region, and excavators believe that they might have been used for some sort of ritual at the time of their creation.

The 400 stalagmites were presumably broken off from the sides of the cave and arranged into two circles, one larger one and a smaller one, as well as several organized piles throughout the cave.

The discovery was recently reported in Nature, an international journal, which reveals how the discovery sheds light on the life of Neanderthals. Some archaeologists believe these peoples lived in France thousands of years before the first humans 140,000 years ago.

[Video Still]

[Video Still]

The Phoenicians were really Portugese?

Scientists made a surprising discovery when they finished mapping the genome of a Phoenician male who lived approximately 2500 years ago. They expected to find that his maternal ancestry originated from North Africa or the Middle East. Instead they discovered he had a rare mitochondrial haplogroup that comes from European hunter-gatherer populations. Not only that, but his DNA most closely matched modern day Portuguese.

Phoenicians, as a distinct socio-political people, originated in what is now Lebanon. But they spread their empire throughout the Mediterranean. Their religion was a polytheistic one honoring Gods such as Baal and Astarte. In later years, the religion took a more syncretic turn and incorporated more Greek Gods and and Goddesses.

It is hoped, by studying the DNA of ancient peoples, archaeologists can get a better idea of human migration and exchange patterns, such as religion. Does this mean those early hunter-gathers from the Iberian peninsula also worshipped Baal? That we don’t yet know.

Even in ancient Egypt, you couldn’t escape death or taxes

A device called a nilometer has been found in the ruins of a temple complex in the ancient city of Thmuis. Archaeologists believe that the device was built in the third century BCE and was used for almost 1000 years to calculate how high the water level reached during the annual Nile flood.

This Nile river used to flood the delta region each July or August and it would leave behind a rich layer of silt. The silt made growing crops such as wheat and barley possible and made Egypt into the breadbasket of the Mediterranean.

If the river flood was too high, homes and grain storage facilities were swept away. If the flood was too little, famine would result from not enough crop land being fertile for crop growth. 

The nilometer was a circular well with a staircase leading down. In this way, Egyptian officials could measure the depth of the water and that would tell them if the crops would be plentiful or sparse. And that, in turn, told them how much in taxes to assess.

Nilometers were built in temple complexes because the Nile River is a God and the nilometer was an interface between the religious and mundane aspects of life in ancient Egyptian culture.

Want a new ancient Egyptian spell?

How about two? Linguists have just deciphered two more spells from a cache of such spells written on papyri dating back to the third century AD. The cache was found 100 years ago in Egypt and are written in Greek. One spell instructs the spell caster to burn a number of offerings in a bathhouse and write a spell on its walls calling on the gods to “burn the heart” of a woman who has withheld her love.

The other, designed to force a man to obey the caster’s every command, instructs the caster to engrave a series of magical words onto a copper plaque and then affix it to something the man wears, such as a sandal.

These spells and many others will be published in an upcoming volume of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

[Public Domain]

[Public Domain]

Peruvian women show a break in religious tradition

Archaeologists in Peru’s north coast earthed the unexpected – female sacrificial victims.

Most ancient societies in the region practiced some form of human sacrifice and the victims were almost always male prisoners. But in a temple in Pucalá, just outside of Chiclayo, the remains of six female sacrifice victims were found.

The six women were found with missing rib bones, suggesting they were left exposed to scavengers such as vultures for a time. They were then buried in a ritual space with high walls.

The remains date back to 850 AD, a time of ideological change. This is demonstrated by how the women were positioned for burial. The women’s bodies were buried, on a east-west axis, showing there was a change away from the dying Moche culture and towards the Lambayeque culture.

Although little is known about Moche and Lambayeque religion, it appears they both worshipped a single male deity which was represented by a mask of a male with his eyes turned upward. The Lambayeque developed extremely complex and hierarchical funeral practices.

2000px-Pentacle_on_white.svgIt was announced that Morgan McFarland, co-founder of the McFarland Dianic tradition, died Dec. 7, 2015. Together with Mark Roberts, Morgan established the tradition in 1971 in Dallas, Texas. Several covens were eventually born, and Morgan began to write down all of her teachings. In 1977, Mark, who had served as High Priest, left the tradition to follow his own path. Then, in 1979, Morgan retired as High Priestess. However, the tradition continued to thrive.

Although Morgan never returned to coven life, she has always been considered the matriarch of the McFarland Dianic Wiccan tradition, and did serve as an adviser to the tradition’s council.

Claudiney Pietro, a Wiccan Priest from Brazil, wrote, “Today is a day of sorrow for the Craft of the Wise,” calling Morgan McFarland one of the most important and inspirational figures. We will have more on Morgan’s life and work in the coming weeks.

What is remembered, lives.

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12075017_1206418709377072_2965345679513940138_nIt has been just one month since the Paris terror attacks shocked the world, leaving 130 dead and hundreds wounded. Since that time, Pagans have been performing rituals in and around the city. As we reported in November, the Ligue Wiccane Eclectique, Paris-based Pagan group, organized a worldwide prayer candlelight vigil complete with a special chant. Coordinator Xavier Mondon noted that, despite the tragedy, “There is a willingness to unite and be present.”

Several weeks later, local Pagans organized a peace and protection ritual for the United Nations Climate Conference (COP21). They explained, “Although our community is diverse, as global citizens we were all touched by the devastating terrorist attacks in Paris. Now is an opportunity to lend your skills, energy, mojo, and Will to help PROTECT PARIS and TIP THE SCALES of the climate talks so we may have real, measurable, actionable results.” The two protection circles were kept active until this past weekend, during which they was taken down and opened.

Coming up this next weekend will be another public Pagan ritual. The Lique Wiccane Eclectique, which is also celebrating its 10 year anniversary, and Le Cercle de Sequana are staging a public Yule Ritual to be held Dec. 20 at 3 p.m. The event invitations ask guests to “come as they are,” bring food, decorations, tools and to dress for the weather. The ritual will take place outside at Château de Vincennes.

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operation circle careOperation Circle Care (OCC) is in its 9th year of operation and is an annual project of Circle Sanctuary. Each year the organization collects Pagan ritual and religious items for service members stationed overseas and on deployment. OCC organizers said, “Last year, we were proud to send packages to service members stationed in countries such as Kuwait, Germany, South Korea, Japan, and to Sailors & Marines at sea around the world.”

The program is 100% supported by Pagans for Pagans, as they note. Therefore, Circle reaches out to the larger community each year to make this project a reality. First, they ask for the names and contact information for any military service members that might like a Pagan gift package. In addition, they are asking for item donations, such as: Pagan jewelry, divination items, mini altar cloths, small God/Goddess symbols, Pagan music, handmade small craft items and more. A full list is on the website.

Organizers said, “What has always made the OCC project so special is its personal touch. Operation Circle Care contents are always made up of personal gifts donated by Pagans of many traditions.”

In Other News:

  • Last week, we noted the upcoming conference season, which is typically kicked off with the Conference on Current Pagan Studies. Its organizers have just newly updated the website with the complete event schedule. The conference theme is Social Justice, and the keynote speakers are Gus diZerega and Nikki Bado. As always, this conference takes place in Claremont, California over two days near the end of January. More information is on the website.
  • Terra Mysterium, a Chicago based theatre company, will be premiering its new, Pagan-themed, adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The play, titled A Midwinter’s Mummers Tale, “concerns the transformation of Esmerelda Pennywise […] through visitations from powerful Ancient beings. It will feature British folk customs, new arrangements of beloved British folk songs and original compositions, and bring a holiday magick of a different stripe to this beloved tale!”  Terra Mysterium will be performing the play over Yule weekend, Dec. 18-20, at the Lincoln Loft in Chicago. We will have more on this project coming up later this week.
  • The Green Album producers have announced a partnership with The Rainforest Trust. Partial proceeds from the album’s sale will be donated to the Trust and its work to “protect the world’s tropical forests.” The Green Album is a collaborative project that will feature fifteen different Pagan artists from around the world. It will be available for purchase in spring 2016.
  • Author and Priestess Arianna Alexsandra Collins has released her first novel Hearken to Avalon. On the site, Collins describes the book as “Set against the backdrop of myth and legend, history is rewritten by those who did not get to tell their side of the story. Meet the descendants of Avalon and Guy of Gisbourne, the Stag King.” Hearken to Avalon is available through her website and through Create Space.
  • The start of 2016 is only weeks away. Producers of the popular GBG Calendar say that it is not too late to order next year’s edition. With every calendar purchase, a donation is given to The Museum of Witchcraft and the Doreen Valiente Foundation. In addition, older calendars are also now available for purchase through the GBG Calendar website.
  • For those awaiting the distribution of A Beautiful Resistance, your wait is over. The paper version was released on Nov 5, and it has been shipped to all those who pre-ordered, and it is now available in some retails stores and by mail order. A digital version will be released tomorrow, Dec 15. A Beautiful Resistance is the first issue of a journal produced by the editors of the Gods & Radicals website. It’s 120-pages contain the works of 30 different Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist writers on a range of related topics.

The recent terror attacks in Lebanon and France have sent shockwaves through Europe and the United States. On Nov 12, Beirut suffered a double suicide bombing killed 43 and wounded more than 200 people. That was quickly overshadowed by events the next day in France, where 129 people have died and over 100 were wounded. Daesh has claimed responsibility for both attacks.

In response, France has initiated a military campaign against suspected terrorist targets in Syria and has arrested over 100 suspects. Anti-immigration protests are taking place nationwide, and theits President has proposed changes to the French constitution that would expand his powers. Belgian officials are considering shutting down what what they call “certain radical mosques” in Molenbeek, an area that has been linked to a major terrorist attack five times in the past 18 months.  And, the Governors of 26 U.S. states have now said they will not accept Syrian refugees unless there is a stringent screening in place.

As this international crisis continues to evolve on a macro scale, these brutal attacks and their aftermath, have affected people on the micro level, including many Pagans who live in both France and Lebanon.

In Beirut, two suicide bombers struck at rush hour in a busy shopping district. Daesh said that they chose the neighborhood because it is home to Shiite and Palestinians, both of whom it views as apostates. Although Beirut has endured such attacks in the past, it had been relatively calm and peaceful for many months.

downloadLeyla, a polytheist living in a suburb of Beirut said that the city isn’t as a dangerous a place as many Americans may think. She said, “[It] has been calm for months. Then the bombing happened. The bombing was shocking. We are shocked. We have been enjoying cafes and visiting friend, now we stay at home.”

She added that the bombing by Daesh has also increased tensions between Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees living in Beirut. She explained that many homes are filled to overflowing with extended relatives who had to flee Syria. “I pray to Ashtarte to bring peace to our country and to the whole of our place. We have so many refugees from Syria, but now they are suspicioned. Yes, you trust your family from Syria, but others? Are they refugees or men with bomb belts? We do not know.”

Leyla said that she is also worried about France’s military actions, but even more so she worries that Daesh will take over Lebanon. “The attacks on Daesh by France are good and bad. Daesh must be stopped. After they swallow Syria, they swallow Lebanon.” Leyla added that she especially fears what will happen to Pagans like herself and to her family. “[Daesh] will kill all pagans, all Christians, all those not them. It is known they kidnap and keep for raping women who aren’t Islam. But bombs from France will not stop them, only kill innocents. Bombs spread sadness.”

The suicide bombings in Beirut were barely making onto the world’s radar when the Paris attacks happened. Attention was immediately diverted. Leyla said that she’s hurt, but understands, “We, too, were more shocked [of the] attack in Paris than attack here. Paris is thought so safe and Lebanese have special ties to France. If such acts happen there, how is anyone safe?”

In France, the attacks took the form of several suicide bombings and shootings. The first explosion occurred outside the Stade de France, located just outside of Paris. The attacker attempted to gain entry to the facility, but was stopped from entering. Another suicide attacker blew himself up at a fast food restaurant near the stadium. Meanwhile in the heart of Paris, gunmen attacked patrons at the Le Carillon bar, and then crossed the street to attack diners at the Le Petit Cambodge restaurant. Then came yet another attack on diners a few streets away at the Le Café Bonne Bière and La Casa Nostra pizzeria. The next reports of shootings were at the La Belle Equipe bar, further south. The final attacks happened at the restaurant Le Comptoir Voltaire and in the 1500 seat Bataclan concert venue.

download (1)French officials have said that it appeared there were “three coordinated teams” responsible for the attack. While most of the terrorists have been identified as native French citizens, one of them may have slipped into France by pretending to be a Syrian refugee.  

French Pagans, like their co-religionists in Beirut, responded to the attacks with shock.

Babette Petiot, a French Polytheist living in the Auvergne countryside, said, “Everyone is shocked, but how not to be, it is the biggest attack on France since WWII. From what I have seen, the reactions were prayer, the Ligue Wiccane Eclectique organised Saturday night a Facebook event for people to pray or have a small personal ritual. And on French blogs, it was mostly about sharing love and sending love.”

The Facebook prayer event was created for “Wiccans and pagans who want to unite to pray for the victims of the shooting in Paris of 13.11 and their families, we offer a ritual convergence tonight at 21h Paris time.” Organizers asked people to “direct [their] thoughts, comfort and peace to the souls of those shot and their relatives, and the injured of Paris.”  According to the event page, 42 people participated.

The prayer event included the following chant:

Paix en nous, paix en eux,
Paix autour de nous et paix autour d’eux,
Paix ici, paix là-bas,
Paix à [Paris] et et paix dans le monde,
Apaisons les tensions, accueillons la …

Xavier Mondon, spokesperson for La Ligue Wiccane Eclectique, said that he hasn’t sensed any fear or anger in the city. He said the mood was more one of sadness, “And, also, a willingness to be united, all together against this craziness. That will not last: French people like to argue, and are not always in agreement with each other. But for this moment, there is a willingness to unite and be present.”

Ms. Petiot said that tensions have risen in France, and that there have been some retaliation directed at Muslim communities. She said that this sentiment could affect the upcoming December elections and tilt them in favor of the far right and its anti-immigration platform. She also added that this political calculation may be affecting how the current French government responds.

Petiot explained, “France was already engaged in Syrian conflict beforehand alongside our US allies. François Hollande, our president, has a nickname: ‘Flamby’ [a very soft flan au caramel dessert]. As you can imagine, it is associated with weakness, spineless, softness … Like doormat if you see what I mean. After the refugees crisis in Europe, that is still carrying on, he mostly followed Germany’s and Angela Merkel’s opinions. Friday night, he was in the Stade de France, at the soccer match France-Germany. It is believed he was one of the targets in those terrorists attacks. Because of this, he had to react ‘strong’ and ‘hard.’ “

Mondon, who lives in Paris, said that he himself hasn’t heard much criticism of the president. “I have not heard anyone criticizing Hollande about the raids. Truthfully, there is little talk of politics. It is now a time for contemplation and for solidarity. Politics will come later.”

In a previous interview with The Wild Hunt, Petiot describes France as a very secular country, one in which religious people are somewhat looked down upon. In that article, Petiot explained that the French have a very different relationship with religion, “There has always been this vision of [religiosity] as something for the poor, non-educated, or for women. [This] explains partly why secularism is such a big deal. I’m almost sure a French person will far more easily talk you about sex than religion.”

The existing cultural divide between a small minority, who are described as overtly religious, and the over 80% of French people who do not describe themselves as religious. This may be partly what Daesh wished to exploit. The Wild Hunt asked Petiot and Mondon for some insight into how France’s cultural views of religion affect the current situation.

Mondon explained that French secularism is not an anti-religious sentiment. “On the contrary, it permits all religions to co-exist. Muslims, just like Christians, Pagans, Atheists and even followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, have a right to express their beliefs. It is absolutely permissible, except for in public schools or public administration. As far as I can see, this passive coexistence and respect for differences has not been threatened [by recent events.] On the contrary, the current feeling of national unity is moving us closer to this ideal.”

Going into more detail, Petiot had this to say:

France was a colonial power. Most Muslims [here] are second or third generation in France. They are Muslims by tradition, like most french Christians, who go to church only on Christmas and weddings and such, so do Muslims in mosques. They spend Eid with family, try to do the Ramadan but drink alcohol and live mostly like everybody else. We have 7% of the French population who declare themselves Muslim. But only a very small part of this is really openly religious, with hijab or abaya worn by women and djellabas bearded men …

This small group is [seen as] the real problem. French motto is “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” By their attitudes and outfits they negate the motto, because of religious beliefs, ‘I will not dress like you, we are not equals, we are not brothers.’ They do not realise, but it is very aggressive, especially to those born during WWII and the flower power generation. You know, something lost in translation … 

She explained how most French people feel that if you have a religion, “we are very happy and proud of you. [But] the problem begins when you show it off … I find it gross and rude, and certainly not acceptable!” Petiot further added,

As for the refugees, it is a completely different problem. Those people were living lives very similar to our own, most of those are educated and fled for their lives, they had enough money to attempt the daring trip. Unfortunately, and because of a very small proportion of visible devout Muslims, those refugees are perceived like a threat. And frankly, it is stupid …

I believe most French people don’t really recall their own history. Because of our geographic [location], we are at the center of population flows: celts, gauls, franks, romans, goths, hiberians, vikings, sarrasins … And we have been also great invaders … and not only in Europe! I believe mixing is a formidable chance. I believe in humanity.

Some Pagans events in Paris were cancelled after the President declared a State of Emergency, but outside of Paris, events are still happening. Petiot said, “As for me, this weekend, I will share an art exhibition with a few of my fellow artists. I am completely changing the layout and I will present calligraphic artwork on freedom theme. And we will share art, culture, music and obviously food! And we will drink wine, in honor of the innocents who were killed, in honor of those who survived, in honor of all our [First Responders] and for the conviviality. Because it is our way of life since the dawn of time.”


Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson [Photo Credit: Haukurth (Own work), CC lic. Wikimedia]

As the sun’s light was blocked by the moon’s travel, members of Iceland’s Ásatrúarfélagið broke ground for their new temple in Reykjavík. The ceremony was the next major step in a quest that began in 2006. Columnist Eric Scott detailed the history and plans for this temple in a January article “Temple on the HIll,” interviewing both the architect and organization’s leader, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson.

The Icelandic Review described the Friday event, saying: “The ceremony began at 08.38, at the start of the eclipse, whereby the boundaries were ceremonially marked out, candles lit in each corner, and local landmarks honored. When the darkness was at its height, at 09.37, a fire was lit in what will be the center of the chapel.”  The Norse Mythology Blog posted a photo from the actual ceremony on its Facebook page and on its Twitter account.

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A Pagan mother living in Paris has set herself a lofty goal of creating a new Pagan cafe in the city. Krynn Aïlhenya, a French Pagan and Parisan local, said that she’s very active in trying to develop and grow France’s Pagan community. On her new crowd sourcing campaign, she said, “Un espace convivial pour les païen(ne)s de toutes traditions, où discuter autour d’une pinte.” [“A welcoming space for all pagans of all traditions, where they come and talk over a pint.”]

Aïlhenya said that she and the other organizers hope that the space expands beyond that one simple description. Once in full operation, the Pagan cafe would also serve as a “a library, an esoteric shop and could host events like Pagan celebrations, exhibitions, and conferences.” Provided in both English and French, the IndieGoGo description notes that they hope to open by the end of 2015 in the very center of Paris.

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On March 18, a gunman opened fired in Mesa, Arizona killing one person and wounding five others. The suspect, Ryan Giroux, was quickly taken into custody. It was not long before the media discovered that Giroux’s was connected to the Hammerskins White Supremacist group. Unfortunately, this detail was made more pronounced by the very large tattoo on the man’s chin – the Hammer of Thor.

After learning of shooting, HUAR quickly offered a statement in reaction. It reads in part, “This individual and his associates are notorious for corrupting many aspects of Heathen practice for advancing their white nationalist agenda by grossly dishonorable means including, most shamefully, the hallowed Hammer of Thor … We, the members of Heathens United Against Racism, denounce Giroux, his associates, and any others who assisted him in perpetrating his terrible actions.” Several other Heathens and groups have issued similar statements, such as Alyxander Folmer. We will be continue to follow this story.

In Other News … Interviews and more Interviews

  • On March 8, The Goddess Diaries Radio interviewed Z. Budapest. In the 40 minute interview, “Z shared her story of being prosecuted/persecuted for practicing her craft in the“last witch trial” in America. Her courage to stand in her truth paved the way for woman to freely practice Goddess Spirituality in our country today.”
  • In conjunction with Paganicon, Lupa Greenwolf is interviewed by PNC-Minnesota writer Nels Linde. Greenwolf talks about her background, her practice and her work on the new Tarot deck. She said, “I have a very deep love of learning about nature, to include learning through books and documentaries.
  • Linde also published another interview done in conjunction with Paganicon. In this article, he speaks with Rev. Selena Fox about everything from her life passages workshop, to political activism, and to the future of Circle Sanctuary. When talking about transferring responsibility to younger people, Fox said, “We need to do more of this. We not only need to do education, but need to inspire and guide action. We need to find ways to take responsibility as individuals, as households, and as communities to work together for a healthier, sustainable world with equality, liberty, and justice for all.
  • ACTION’s 2015 Ostara edition is available. In its 54 pages, Christopher Blackwell includes interviews with Black Witch, Allison Leigh Lilly, Lee Davies, David Parry, Linda Sever, Lorna Smithers, and Stephen Cole.
  • Finally, the Atlantis Bookshop in London celebrated its 93rd Birthday. As they posted, the “beastly” celebration included tea, cakes and “cheeky cocktails.” Now owned by Geraldine Beskin, Atlantis was founded in 1922 by Michael Houghton. It has been one of the cornerstones in London’s Occult and Witchcraft community for nearly a century. Happy Birthday to Atlantis!

That is it for now. Have a great day.

Update 3/23/15 2:45pm: We originally stated that the Paris cafe was to be the first in the city. However, we recently were informed otherwise and have corrected the text. 

This past Wednesday, three Islamic extremists carried out a deadly attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, leaving 12 people dead. A national hunt for the terrorists came to a violent end when French police caught the two remaining suspects, and simultaneously ended a connected hostage situation in Paris.

Within hours of the initial attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French government, its people, and much of the world demonstrated outrage, denouncing the act as an assault on freedom of expression. Cartoonists around the world flooded Twitter with their own work in support; international media outlets reprinted or retweeted the drawings of Charlie Hebdo‘ artists. Others spoke out in solidarity with the murdered journalists. Even one of France’s most famous cartoonists, Albert Udezo, came out of retirement to join the movement.

The French government announced that it would give the magazine almost 1 million euros to continue operations. A Google-backed Press Fund is donating $300,000 to Charlie Hebdo. The Guardian Media Group has also pledged £100,000.

Je suis Charlie” quickly became the words of solidarity.

Mais nous ne sommes pas tous Charlie. We are not all Charlie. The 45- year old satirical magazine has built its reputation through the regular mocking of national and international figures and institutions, including religion. Their most publicized target was, of course, Islam. While the magazine’s cartoons were, at times, politically poignant, others were just simply offensive, or provocative at best.

je_suis_charlie_fist_and_pencilBabette Petiot, a French Polytheist living in the Auvergne countryside, said, “Je n’aimais pas particulièrement “Charlie Hebdo,” je ne l’ai jamais acheté, parce que je trouve que c’est vraiment de mauvais gout…” [I did not specially like Charlie Hebdo, didn’t buy it even once, because I thought it was really of bad taste.]

Slate‘s Jordan Weissman, as well as others, have gone as far as labeling the magazine “racist.” Weissman writes, “This, in a country where Muslims are a poor and harassed minority, maligned by growing nationalist movement that has used liberal values like secularism and free speech to cloak garden-variety xenophobia.”

This complication provokes a necessary recalibration of the expressions of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. Can we stand in silent vigil for the victims, but not necessarily endorse their work? Can we create an allegiance with the movement “Je suis Charlie,” speak out against the violence wrought by religious extremism, while ignoring the fact that Charlie Hebdo is what could be considered journalistic extremism?

Satirical writing and cartoons, like those produced by Charlie Hebdo, are meant to provoke, to challenge and often to incite. Satire raps on the door of decency and often just knocks it completely down. Satirists cross cultural lines of acceptable rhetoric with the intent of creating discomfort and provoking reaction. It is what’s expected of that genre and, within a free press, it is allowed.

With that said, quoting the famous American broadcast journalist, Walter Cronkite, “Freedom is a package deal – with it comes responsibilities and consequences.” As demonstrated in a recent New York Times article, Charlie Hebdo’s writers were willing to shoulder the responsibility for crossing lines and knocking down doors, and fully exercising their freedom to express.

In the Times article, the Charlie Hebdo staff is depicted not as radicals, militants or doctrinaires; rather they are described as fierce defenders of and believers in the freedom of expression. The article quotes Françoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker as saying, “They weren’t hiding behind their drawings. They knew the dangers. There had been firebombs and threats. They were actually defying a gag order given to them by extremists.”

She added that the publisher, Stephane Chardonnier, had once equally defended the rights of local Muslims to protest his paper. At the time, Chardonnier said, “We have a right to express ourselves. They have a right to express themselves, too.”

Charlie Hebdo's Editor talks to media after 2011 fire bombing [Photo Credit: Coyau / Wikimedia]

Charlie Hebdo’s Editor talks to media after 2011 fire bombing [Photo Credit: Coyau / Wikimedia]

The editor’s fierce defense of free speech is admirable. In our pages here, we write about topics and share points of view that are considered provocative outside of our collective communities. I am grossly aware that, in some countries and communities, and in many past eras, The Wild Hunt would never have been permitted to thrive. Our ability to publish, without fear of arrest or worse, is founded on the very same freedom of expression.

Regardless of the Charlie Hebdo’s content, the deadly attack was still unthinkable. No act of journalism warrants an act of extreme terror. No act of journalism warrants bloodshed.

Petiot said “Je ne vais certainement pas supporter que des fous qui furieux attaquent et tuent des journalistes et des dessinateurs pour leurs idées! Pour quelques dessins idiots?! C’est totalement et proprement inacceptable! Oui, je suis avec le mouvement “Je suis Charlie” parce que c’est une attaque contre la liberté d’expression.” [“I will not stand for some crazy people attacking and killing journalists and cartoonists for their opinions! For their silly cartoons! This is totally and utterly not acceptable! Yes I stand with “Je suis Charlie” because it was an attack on liberty of expression.]

Siannon, a Wiccan living Paris, expressed a similar thought, “Je suis bien sûr choquée que l’on tue des dessinateurs, que certains s’attaquent avec une telle violence à la liberté d’expression.” [“I am absolutely shocked that someone would kill cartoonists that people would attack freedom of expression with such violence.“]

Over the past few days, French Pagans have been attending the spontaneous vigils in public squares and lighting candles for the victims. Cogann Moran is collecting signatures on a statement from members of the French Pagan community.

Although she supports the movement, Siannon has not felt compelled to pray, saying, “Une païenne a fait une remarque qui a attiré mon attention: elle rappelait que les principales victimes étaient athées, défenseurs de l’État laïque, et n’auraient peut être pas aimé qu’on leur fasse des prières.” [“One Pagan made a remark that really got my attention. She remembered that the main victims were atheists, defenders of a secular state, and would never have liked anyone praying for them.”]

[Photo Credit: Valentina Calà/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Valentina Calà/Flickr]

I also spoke with a third Parisian, who is vehemently opposed to the “Je suis Charlie” campaign, but not because of the magazine’s content. Mariane, an Asatruar living in Paris, said:

Les deux frères ont eu davantage de couverture médiatique qu’un homme politique français ne pourrait rêver d’obtenir. Les chaines d’infos ont littéralement parlé d’eux 24/24. D’autres chaînes leur ont consacré tous les bulletins d’infos, comme si rien d’autre ne s’était passé entre-temps dans le monde entier. Même Obama parle d’eux! Il est allé à l’ambassade française avec les meilleures intentions, j’en suis sure, mais j’ai peur qu’il n’envoie un message indésirable à quelques tarés qui rêvent de devenir des héros… Personnellement, je ne me joindrai pas à la mouvance “Je suis Charlie,” parce je pense que, moins nous parlons de ces gars-là, moins nous risquons d’inspirer d’éventuels imitateurs.

[“The two brothers are getting more news coverage than any French politician could ever dream of. News channels literally talked about them round the clock. Other channels devoted all the newscasts to them, as if nothing else had happened meanwhile in the whole world. Even Obama is talking about them! He went to the French Embassy with the best intentions, I’m sure, but I’m afraid he is sending the wrong message to some crazy bastards dreaming of becoming heroes… I’m personally not joining “Je suis Charlie” because I think the less we talk about these guys, the less we risk inspiring copycats.”]

Both Siannon and Petiot noted the presence of real fear in the country as well as a notable surge in Islamphobia. Siannon said, “Les plus sages soulignent l’importance de ne pas nourrir la haine.” [The wisest and most important point to stress is to not nourish hate.”]

With that, we are reminded of the original question. If we stand in solidarity with a magazine noted for mocking religion, are we nourishing hatred or, at the very least, supporting an indifferent tolerance of it? Or is it possible to surgically separate Charlie Hebdo’s satirical work from Charlie Hebdo’s philosophy on free expression? Can we separate the content from the belief?

This brings us to the Ahmed Merabet, the French police officer who was murdered defending Charlie HebdoAccording to reports, Merabet was a French Muslim, who was guarding Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters, while those inside mocked his beliefs. When news of this spread, a second solidarity campaign was born. Je Suis Ahmed. While there is still speculation on whether he is actually Muslim, the new solidarity statement has gathered its own power, meaning and momentem. It says, “I don’t agree with what you say. But I defend your right to say it.”*

While Charlie Hebdo‘s approach to journalism is not one that I, personally, would endorse. As a writer and editor, I can’t help but approve of its fierce support of freedom of expression and of the press. Non, je ne suis pas Charlie. Peut-être, je suis Ahmed. Mais, je suis certainement la liberté.


* This is statement is inspired by a sentence out of a Voltaire biography written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall in 1906.

Quimper Cathedral, (CC Tom DL)

Quimper Cathedral, (CC Tom DL)

The cobbles outside are slick from a chill September rain, and I’m a bit unsteady on my feet, even with the aid of the large staff of Alder I’d been carrying for several days through the streets of Quimper.

Also, I’m inebriated. Pour a libation to Dionysos at a Breton gay bar the night before you intend to climb a sacred mount known to be both a Druidic site as well as hosting likely shrines to Brighid and Maponus, and it’s near impossible not to get drunk.

I’m on my seventh beer, and my limit is normally two. I hadn’t bought a single one. The attractive bartender and several equally fascinating Breton patrons have decided to get l’Americaine utterly smashed.

I was awfully grateful for their generosity and for their attention. The Bretons fascinated me, and particularly this city with its ancient rivers, its dark alleyed warrens, and it’s almost skeletal cathedral to one of the Seven conquering saints of Bretagne, St. Corentin.

Mention of St. Corentin to the men in the bar yielded a surprising reaction. Most French gay men with whom I’d spoken about the Catholic saints become immediately dismissive, but there was a dark ferocity in the words from the men in this bar about him.

“He saved us, sure,” said one who’d bought me several drinks. “But he stole from us our joy and took away who we were.

The Breton cultural identity is not necessarily “Pagan,” but it’s hardly Christian and most definitely not French. Bretagne is one of several culturally -and linguistically- distinct regions in France that suffered severely from the French government’s attempts to create a “French” identity throughout its state and colonies. Only 200 thousand people still speak Breton (more closely related to Welsh and Cornish than to Irish and Scottish Gaelic) and, though signs are printed both in French and in Breton, you hear no-one speaking it on the streets.

Breton nationalism, however, is soaked in Pagan thought and imagery. The Breton Druidic revival had a similar birth to that of the Welsh revival–both had illustrious and charismatic figures who were also nationalist. That is, the revival of Paganism in Bretagne was significantly influenced by political independence movements forged to build cultural and ethnic identity and autonomy against a hegemonic, democratic, and imperialist power (for the Welsh, England; for the Bretons, France.)

One can certainly draw a parallel between these independence movements and similar resistance movements within the Americas. In the United States, particularly, Black Nationalism and First Nations independence movements spoke heavily of cultural and ethnic identity against a colonial (and slave-taking) power which had sought to eradicate non-White identities and beliefs through economic and political violence.

Racialism and Pagan Identity


Street battle between Anarchists and Greek Fascists (Public Domain Photo)

Any discussion of ethnic and nationalist movements would be dishonest without addressing the parasitical spectre of Racism which sometimes attaches itself to such struggles. Readers of European news will certainly be aware of the recent resurgence of highly racialized nationalist parties in Europe (The Front National in France, UKIP in Britain, and the frustratingly named Golden Dawn in Greece among many others.) These far-right parties often evoke imagery of a pure and nostalgic notion of “the folk,” pure of ethnicity and oppressed by foreigners (be they international bankers, powerful states, or immigrant workers.)

Through political and cultural rhetoric, such parties create an ideal innocent “we” similar in symbolic structure to the Nazi Volk or the American “Moral Majority,” salt-of-the-earth innocents who wish only to live lives of peace and prosperity as their forefathers did.

The American political analysis of such movements is either to deny parallels between conservative rhetoric and other “extreme” ideologies elsewhere or, the equally disturbing liberal answer, which is to abolish all expressions of ethnic and political difference within society, sacrificing identity at the altar of Capitalist assimilation.

I’ve seen no polls on the political affiliations of self-identified Pagans in the United States, but I’ve met only a few who don’t admit to leaning more on the liberal side of most things. Such tendencies are unsurprising, seeing as conservatives in America are generally Christian and push political agendas which Pagans have had to fight against in order to be recognized as practicing legitimate religions. The strong feminist and environmentalist traditions within American Paganism also make such alliances more tenable.

That being said, Liberalism is also what restrains Paganism because of its insistence on a flattening of differences and its sublimation of subversive identities. One can be whatever one wishes to be, provided that identity does not challenge the Capitalist, Disenchanted order. Beliefs and practices which refer to narratives in conflict with the Disenchanted order become marginalized quickly. One can be Muslim provided one not believe it too authentically, be Queer as long as one not act upon such desires in the public sphere. Here, I’d refer also to recent backlash against polytheistic beliefs within Paganism–one can believe in gods, provided one does not really act as if they exist.

Liberalism claims, likewise, to stand as a bulwark against Racist ideologies such as those rising in Europe (and also existing in America, though without strong political presence) through this flattening of difference, but denies the very difference within itself. The banning of religious icons (veils, minarets) and practices (Halal and Kosher butchery) by Liberal governments in Europe serves as a great example of this process. In the name of secularism, spiritual and cultural practices become commodities to be regulated, while the actually-existing religious practices of Europeans are relegated to a place of invisibility even as they continue to exist and exert influence. That is, the West disenchants both the beliefs of others and itself, flattening or annihilating identity difference in order to maintain power.

And worse, Liberal, colonialist tendencies within Paganism actually continue violence against oppressed peoples through the commodification of belief and maintains Western disenchantment of itself.

Colonialism Within Paganism: The Monomyth and Sensuous Ants

Two writers, neither of them avowedly Pagan, have contributed significantly to modern Paganism’s adoption of colonialist stances regarding indigenous beliefs of oppressed people. And though both of them have opened to many a basic understanding of mythic and diverse ways of thinking, their methods unfortunately re-inscribe the very flattening of human spiritual experience which has been described by many as Disenchantment.

Neither Joseph Campbell nor David Abram have ever made claims that they themselves are Pagan; that being said, the influence of Campbell’s work on so-called Neopagan (particularly Archetypal conceptions of the gods, building upon some readings of Carl Jung) theology is profound, and David Abram has appeared in so many reading lists of Pagan sites and forums that one might begin to suspect him of a foundational influence. And though both have certainly enriched the spiritual understanding of many, both wield colonial tools against the diversity of (non-white, non-western) religious and cultural experiences so well that their mistakes appear almost invisible.

Joseph Campbell’s conception of the similarities and pattern of sacred stories and myths across cultures, the so-called Monomyth, appears on the surface to be a particularly useful way of promoting understanding between peoples. The Monomyth functions almost as a universal key with which the stories of others can be unlocked and comprehended. But inherent in his notion that the sacred myths of people can be reduced to a universally-recognized pattern is the statement that all other human people groups can be understood by modern (capitalist, disenchanted) Westerners because all other stories are based on the same pattern of the West. That is, Western society becomes the rule by which all other peoples (many of which the West has subjugated) can be measured.

David Abram makes a much more subtle mistake in his The Spell of the Sensuous. While a surface reading of his work engenders a general respect for the animistic beliefs of non-European peoples, from an anti-colonialist reading, his re-narration of the experiences of the people he encounters is terrifyingly imperialist. In an oft-quoted part of the introduction to his work, Abram explains an encounter with people in Bali leaving offerings of rice to their household spirits:

“What a waste! But then a strange thought dawned on me. What if the ants were the very “household spirits” to whom the offering were being made? (p.12)

He then re-inscribes Western materialist logic into the indigenous practices of his hosts by describing how the offerings to the household spirits actually functioned to create a boundary between the home and the ant colonies. And while giving tacit acknowledgement to the statement of his hosts, he then blames not his own Western, materialist narrative as the source of misunderstanding, but insists that the Balinese have a less complex understanding of what “spirits” actually consist. That is, while attempting to explain to a disenchanted audience the animist beliefs of non-Westerners, he disenchants those very beliefs.

Assimilation and Cultural Appropriation

Here we can see how the logic of Capitalist disenchantment then functions as a force of assimilation and cultural appropriation, as well. Written into the narrative of European/American culture is the insistence that the beliefs of our ancestors are so far removed from our current existence that they exist almost in a pre-historic past, unreachable from our current position as “modern” peoples except as reconstruction or a sort of utterly different, new system of beliefs borrowing only the imagery of the past (one of the reasons I generally reject the label “neopagan,” as it enforces a difference I do not suspect actually exists.)

More so, the religious experiences of similarly modern (but not-white) peoples become discounted as part of this narrative, so that European secular beliefs (which can better be described as Christianity reformed through the Enlightenment) posit themselves as more advanced than the beliefs of Arabic, Indian, Japanese or Chinese societies, despite those societies being of equal complexity.

This narrative not only excludes the experiences of other peoples, but it attempts to erase–by both omission and rewriting—its own so-called “primitive” practices. By such exclusion, European peoples whose practices, beliefs, and behaviors do not fit into the progressive march towards an enlightened future become either invisible or categorized as other—heretics, mentally-ill, criminals, etc.

Thus, Western society disenchants itself, erasing its own spiritual, cultural, and ethnic diversities towards a flattened identity in which any acceptable and acknowledged variations must be part of that universal narrative. Like Campbell’s hero in the Monomyth, each individual within Western society, in order to obtain an identity, must follow a universal formula which does not deviate from the grand narrative of modern Progress.

Whoville Alley Valkyrie

Capitalism continues its displacement of people from land (Whoville, photo by Alley Valkyrie)

The bizarre and brilliant trick of Capitalism, in every society it touches, is to sever its subjects from access to their own production, offer it back to them in a commodified form, and then present this severance and re-packaging of human activity as “progress.” Just as all the most basic aspects of human existence (food, housing, clothing) have become commodities restricted to the market, so, too, has the process of value-creation—that is, meaning itself.

Consider the explosion of “lifestylists” in the 90’s, or the proliferation of hipster culture currently. Meaning and identity, previously created through the tension of personal and community interactions, is now offered on the market. Almost every anti-hegemonic, radical subculture has become available through the market. The Hippies, Street Rap, Punk, Goth and a host of other initially anti-authoritarian and anti-bourgeois movements all very quickly became commodified lifestyles so that the radical potential in each group is easily forgotten (and sometimes untraceable).

This mechanism replicates itself repeatedly, and it isn’t just limited to American “countercultures.” Consider the question of Cultural Appropriation and the repeated losing battles that many indigenous peoples have waged to protect their religious and cultural practices from becoming commodified. It need not be mentioned that, unfortunately, we Pagans have been particularly guilty of this, voraciously purchasing books on native beliefs, adopting identities and practices as if every belief is merely something to be bought.

But this isn’t a screed against cultural appropriation. We all know it’s wrong, if we’ve even had the briefest of conversations with a person from a subjugated culture. Rather we should look at the very reasons why people in a politically powerful cultural group find themselves seeking “authentic” beliefs in the stolen relics of oppressed peoples, wearing their garb, practicing their rituals with equal longing and callousness.

Consider, again, our reliance upon “the market” for our most necessary means of survival: food. In the mind, food becomes not something merely to be grown, cooked, and eaten–it’s a commodity, something only to be obtained through exchange of money. Our modern distance from the production of food severs us from the reality that it is something we create.

If something so vital to human existence has become distant to our recognition, how much so also the cultural and spiritual rituals and practices interwoven into the history of all human societies?

Towards a Radical (and Non-Racist) Pagan Identity

Recovering, then, the spiritual and cultural heritage of Pagan peoples is not just a religious movement–it’s a political project. Restoring the practices of people who’ve long allowed themselves to be told that their gods and spirits are dead, their ancestors “primitive” and “unenlightened,” liberates space within the hegemonic, disenchanted order not just for themselves, but for those currently fighting the destruction of their beliefs and cultures.

Just as the Breton and Welsh Druid Revival movements were both Pagan and political, and the current independence movements among those same peoples are soaked in the imagery of Pagan identity, so, too, the general anti-authoritarian, anti-chauvinist, and ecological aspects of American Paganism are signs of its radical potential.

But there is a danger in this project. Consider again the rise of Racist Nationalist movements in Europe. While few have managed to capture the imagination of significant Pagan revival movements in Europe, it’s undeniable that the language of ethnic and cultural identity has great appeal to those wishing to restore their ancestral practices. As the Greek fascist party Golden Dawn established itself in New York City, warnings went out through many Polytheist channels about its racist proclivities in order to inoculate Hellenic reconstructionists against its influence. Heathen networks have done similar work, leaving certain influential writers in the precarious position of being attacked both by Pagans bent on turning spirituality into White Supremacist ideologies and by Pagans insisting that belief in really-existing gods is a primitive throwback or even a form of mental-illness.

Though Western Liberal Capitalism, with its logic of modernism and disenchantment, presents itself as a bulwark against the rise of Racialist ideologies, its history of subjugation of ethnic and cultural identities might actually be the very thing which breeds racial hatred and fuels the fascist appropriation of ethnic movements.

At the gay bar, drunk among the Bretons, I’d asked about a piece of news I’d heard earlier that day. The Front National (FN), France’s racist political party headed by Marine Le Pen, had announced plans to campaign heavily in Bretagne, hoping that the strong desire among a long-oppressed people for autonomy and cultural identity would bring many in line with their anti-immigrant, anti-Arab political ideologies.
No one in the bar thought the FN had a chance, but I thought I sensed a palpable fear in the air, an uncertainty which felt much like my own anxiety about my ascent of Menez-Hom the next day.

Elections in March of this year did not yield for the racists the hoped-for success, but they had significant success elsewhere. What I saw in visions the night atop that Druidic site seemed related to the same question I have for the future of Pagan identity. A figure dressed in sea-foam hurriedly showed me how to build a fortification around a Pagan temple, and seemed impatient that I hadn’t already learned to do this.

If Pagans are to claim their own identity outside of the commodification of culture created and sustained by Liberal Capitalism and its disenchantment of the world, and to do so without succumbing to the seething hatred of fascist ideologies, we all better learn to do so. And quickly. She was awfully impatient.


Asatru expands in France

Heather Greene —  February 2, 2014 — 7 Comments

As the calendar year came to a close, a new French Ásatrú group, Les Enfant d’Yggdrasil, was just getting its start. On Nov. 11 the group founders met near Aix-en-Provence to launch the organization. They held a blot, voted the statutes and elected board members. They ended the evening in celebration at a local Mexican restaurant. Then on Jan. 1, 2014, Les Enfant d’Yggdrasil became an officially registered French Heathen organization.

Les Enfants d’Yggdrasil, also known as Yggdrasilsbörn, grew out of unique spiritual need within a growing Pagan and Heathen community.*  Mariane, coordinator of the Pagan Federation International in France and one of Yggdrasilsbörn’s founders, explains that the Board wanted to build a reconstructionist group with the singular goal of “concentrating on religious matters.”

Les Enfants d'Yggdrasil just after the November 2013 ceremony

Les Enfants d’Yggdrasil just after the November 2013 ceremony

To further illustrate, Mariane offers a basic history of Ásatrú groups and practice in France. She says, “The very first [Ásatrú groups] were organized, or not so organized, around simple Yahoo mailing lists. This was before forums became popular and way before Facebook even existed.” There were limited opportunities for interaction with other Ásatrúar or French Heathens in general. Traditionally most people practiced alone.

The few groups that have formed operate mostly in secret or, at the very least, in private. According to Mariane, there is the Strasbourg-based L’Église d’Ásatrú that has successfully operated for more than 10 years.  Next to nothing is shared outside the borders of its tight community. Mariane says that there are many similar “small groups, not so keen on publicity, including one whose participants all live together on a farm dedicated to Freyja in Normandy.”

Despite this longtime focus on privacy, several larger associations have formed in the past 10 years. These are Félag Ásatrú Francophone and Les Fils d’Odin. Both have developed public web presences with very different philosophies.

Úlfdís Haraldsdóttir

Úlfdís Haraldsdóttir

Félag Ásatrú Francophone was founded in 2011 by Úlfdís Haraldsdóttir. She describes the group as eclectic explaining, “We are completely non-political and open to everyone.” As stated on the website, Félag Ásatrú Francophone prides itself on its community founded on “tolerance, respect and [positive] personal exchange.” In an interview at, Úlfdís speaks about her personal journey and how it led to the birth of Félag Ásatrú Francophone.

Les Fils d’Odin was founded in 2006 to support the Norse and Germanic Heathen communities. Members included both “païens universalistes” and “païens identitaires.” The association’s website clarifies the differences. Païens identitaires are those who reconstruct and follow the Nordic practices of their ancestors. They are largely considered Odinists and described as Folkish. Païens universalistes also follow and reconstruct the Nordic traditions but have no ancestral connections. These “paiens” are usually called Ásatrúar.

Up until last year, Les Fils d’Odin had both Odinistes and Ásatrúar members. However in the fall of 2013, the organizers of Les Fils d’Odin decided to lead the association down a new path. In a press release, Gimli, president of Les Fils d’Odin, wrote:

Après 7 ans d’existence et de sincérité envers la religion de nos Ancêtres, l’association va prendre un nouveau tournant. En effet nous souhaitons nous rapprocher le plus possible de nos valeurs et de notre héritage Ces années d’existences nous ont appris beaucoup de bonnes et de mauvaises choses … Nous n’oublierons rien de tout cela … Nous avons besoin de restructurer l’association pour devenir encore plus soudé, souligner notre appartenance à un sol et réussir à atteindre nos objectifs qui sont entre autre la reconnaissance de notre foi autochtone. Les Fils d’Odin, va ainsi devenir une Association Odiniste Identitaire (Pour la défense de ses Valeurs, ses Croyances, la mémoire de ses Ancêtres et de son Sol. (En évitant les langues de bois).

[TranslationAfter seven years of existence and dedication to the religion of our ancestors, the association will be taking a new turn. In effect, we want to move as close as possible to our values and heritage. We have learned much, good and bad… We will forget nothing. [But] we need to restructure the association to become stronger, to emphasize our belonging to the land and successfully attain our objectives which are to reconnect with our native faith. The Children of Odin will therefore become an identity-based Odinist Association. (In the defense of our values, our beliefs, the remembrance of our ancestors and our land)]

When Les Fils d’Odin made this shift in practice, those “paien universalistes” were left with no organizational affiliation. Unfortunately the eclectic nature of Félag Ásatrú Francophone made that association a poor fit. So out of the need for community, these Ásatrúar decided to create their own group – one specifically for universalistes. Mariane says:

[We] decided it would be good to create a reconstructionist group, meaning by this that we seriously try to reconstruct our religion. [But] We are … convinced that anyone can honor their ancestors the ásatrú way. You don’t need to have ásatrú ancestors to do that.

Mariane calls Les Enfants d’Yggdrasil a “gathering of clans.” Since November, members have already held moots and blots. She has expressed great hope for the future of the group and for Ásatrú in France.  Mariane says the biggest uphill struggle stems from the connections made between Ásatrú and white supremacist organizations. These hate-based groups have long incorporated Germanic and Nordic mythological symbols into their own imagery.

The problem is so pervasive that public associations openly disavow a connection in order to be absolutely clear. On its site, Félag Ásatrú Francophone states, “This community is apolitical and will fight to take Ásatrú back from the extreme right or Neo-Nazis. Nordic Paganism has nothing to do with… the ideas of these groups.” Les Fils d’Odin states, “We chose to use the term Odiniste because our association was created in an area with German heritage (Flanders) free from politics. Our association is apolitical… We fight to [take back] some of symbols that have been hijacked by the Nazi regime.” Les Enfants d’Yggdrasil does not have a live website at this point.  However Mariane has specifically stated that this group was built to be completely non-political  

Thor Movie Art by Flickr's  marvelousRoland

Thor Movie Art by Flickr’s marvelousRoland

While the appropriation of these ancient Nordic religious symbols has typically spelled trouble for French Heathens, there may now be a new and completely reverse affect. The secular use of the symbols is drawing attention to Norse mythology, history and lore. Mariane explains:

Thanks to the movie Thor most people now have at least heard about [Ásatrú], though many still don’t know it is still practiced today. Metal music has also contributed to people hearing about Ásatrú. Some wear Thor’s hammers pendants without really knowing what they are, because they have become fashionable among people who like that kind of music.

It is nearly impossible to know for sure if these popular images are contributing to the growing interest  in Ásatrú or other Pagan and Heathen faiths.  However the secular images do contribute to a positive awareness of the faith’s presence within the greater community of France.  As such, the Heathen population may increasingly find safe environments to teach, worship, seek community and, in doing so, find their public voice.



* NOTE:  Word usage varies from country to country due to cultural nuance and/or semantics. For example, the French term paien is commonly used in reference to Asatru and Odinism in France. It commonly translates as Pagan. However it also means Heathen and can refer to polytheists. In addition, the capitalization of certain proper terms, such as Pagan or Asatru, differs in French than in English. While I mostly kept within English language structure, I did attempt to add a bit of French nuance to reflect the cultural and linquistic origins of the story.

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.

Vic Toews

Vic Toews

After the katsina handover, Hopi and the delegation exchanged gifts.

After the katsina handover, Hopi and the delegation exchanged gifts.

  • Back in April, the sale of sacred Hopi objects in France went ahead despite protests from the Hopi tribe of northeastern Arizona, Survival International, and the actor Robert Redford, who called the sale “a sacrilege, a criminal gesture that contains grave moral repercussions.”  Now, Survival International reports that at least one sacred katsina was returned by a buyer who participated in the auction to retrieve it for the Hopi. Quote: “M. Servan-Schreiber then bought one katsina at the auction to return it to the Hopi. He said, ‘It is my way of telling the Hopi that we only lost a battle and not the war. I am convinced that in the future, those who believe that not everything should be up for sale will prevail. In the meantime, the Hopi will not have lost everything since two of these sacred objects have been saved from being sold.’” A second katsina acquired at the auction by another buyer will be returned to the Hopi later this year.
  • Are prisoners in the UK claiming to be Pagan to get extra benefits? Possibly! Though, this is a tabloid so no real data is given other than that self-described Pagans behind bars has nearly doubled to 602 since 2009. Quote: “The surge in paganism behind bars has sparked fears some may be converting for an easier life.” A Prison Service spokesperson noted that Pagan prisoners receive 4 days off per year, and no more.
  • The New York Times profiles the Living Interfaith Church in Washington, a religion that embraces all religions, even Pagans. Quote: “Some of the congregants began arriving to help. There was Steve Crawford, who had spent his youth in Campus Crusade for Christ, and Gloria Parker, raised Lutheran and married to a Catholic, and Patrick McKenna, who had been brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness and now called himself a pagan.” One wonders if the local Unitarian-Universalist congregation wasn’t theologically inclusive enough? Religion scholar Stephen Prothero notes that “one reason we have different religions is that we have different rituals and different beliefs. Those are not insignificant.”
  • Is 2013 the year of the Witch? Pam Grossman at the Huffington Post seems to think so. Quote: “As the year progresses I predict we will all more fully channel the spirit of the witch. Honoring the earth and our bodies; shifting away from mass-market medicines and agri-business toward natural healing and whole foods; sharing our resources rather than focusing on mere accumulation of goods; collaborating and communicating more openly; helping to elevate women and girls to equality all over the world: these are all grand workings of feminine magic that we are manifesting together.” Pardon me while I pick up every stitch.
  • Lisa Derrick at La Figa isn’t fond of Rick Perry voodoo dolls, saying “they perpetuate dangerous, off-base stereotypes and do nothing to help either pro-choice factions or non-Christians.”

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.

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

An Appreciation of Nora Cedarwind Young: News has come from several sources that Circle Sanctuary Priestess, Death Midwife, chaplain, and Green Burial advocate Nora Cedarwind Young is terminally ill, and isn’t expected to live much longer. In response, Circle Sanctuary has posted an appreciation of her rich and varied life, allowing friends, family, and admirers to leave their own messages and remembrances.

Nora Cedarwind Young

Nora Cedarwind Young

“We invite you to share your memories and appreciations of Nora, her life, and legacy here. Nora is in the final part of her life’s journey, and although her condition is such that visitation and phone calls are not presently options, we plan to share with her what is expressed here. Please send love and support to Nora and to her husband Bud and to close friends Joanna, Elaine, and Giving who are assisting with caregiving.  Also, send love and support to Nora’s four children and four grandchildren.”

I was honored to meet and spend time with Nora at Pagan Spirit Gathering a few years ago. She acted as “Den Mother” to our cabin of featured presenters, and showed herself to be a warm, expansive, and embracing presence. It was obvious to me, and others, the inherent skills she possessed as a priestess, as a chaplain, and as a friend. My only regret is that I never took her up on her offer to visit her in Washington, it always seemed like there would be time enough for that in the future. I hope this transition is a gentle one for Nora, and that her gods will be with her, as she has been there for so many. My blessings.

Starhawk at Harvard: Author, activist, and Reclaiming co-founder Starhawk recently gave a talk at Harvard Divinity School entitled “Permaculture and the Sacred.” The video recording of that talk is now up and available to be viewed at the HDS website.

Starhawk at Harvard Divinity School.

Starhawk at Harvard Divinity School.

“Starhawk, contemporary witch, activist, and permaculturist, spoke at HDS on March 7, 2013, about how earth-based spirituality can inform and empower efforts to build sustainable communities and societies. Starhawk is a founder of Reclaiming, a contemporary Pagan tradition that blends Goddess spirituality and social activism, and of Earth Activist Trainings, which equips people to combine permaculture design with political organizing and spiritual practice. A leading interpreter of feminist Wicca, she is the author of The Spiral Dance,The Fifth Sacred Thing, The Empowerment Manual, and many other books.”

For more on Starhawk’s permaculture work, she has pictures and a narrative up from an Earth Activist Training she conducted in January on her blog. Starhawk’s most recent book is “The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups.”

Considering Sacred Space: The 2013 Sacred Space Conference in Maryland happened earlier this month, and several blogs now have reviews and insights up from their time there. Literata says that the conference “lives up to its description as a conference for intermediate to advanced esoteric and magical practitioners,” while the Heartache Into Beauty blog says “it raises the bar for other pagan events with its high-quality, high-level presentations and rituals.” Lastly, Irene the “Pink Pagan Priestess” described the conference as “amazeballs,” which I assume is high praise indeed.

Altars at Sacred Space.

Altars at Sacred Space.

“Sacred Space draws together a truly gifted group of presenters.  They come from an impressively varied background–we have established authors who are bravely breaking new ground, ritual practitioners from every path imaginable (Reconstructionist, Shamanic, British Traditionalist, Chaos Magick…you name it, it was probably there), and luminary Priests and Priestesses who have sought out new connections to Spirit and brought that knowledge back with them.  The only downside to the conference is that I do not own a time turner!  There were several times during Sacred Space when I wished to be in more than one place at one time.  The bevvy of fascinating topics was almost overwhelming.”

2014’s Sacred Space conference will be held March 13-16 and will feature Orion Foxwood, M. Macha Nightmare, and Selena Fox as featured presenters.

In Other Pagan Community News:


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