Archives For France

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

Olympiongc9

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 Equinox.net, 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!

After reading the Wild Hunt article on the Community Wreath, Babette Petiot, a French Polytheist living in the Auvergne countryside, decided to begin a community wreath in France. When I read about this project, called Aureole Païenne, I immediately contacted Babette. I was terribly curious about the Pagan experience in France.  Which traditions are prevalent? What obstacles do they face? Where do they make spiritual purchases?

Babette Petiot's village in the Auvergne countryside

Babette Petiot’s village in the Auvergne countryside

Babette, who is the moderator of the News et liens païens Face Book group, entertained my questions and offered me extensive access to the French Pagan community. With her help, I was able to get a snap-shot of Pagan life in France seen through the eyes of a diverse set of practitioners.

In general, the French Pagan population is small and spread out.  “After a quick opinion poll on Face Book we estimate ourselves to be between 3000 and 5000. But it is more a guess than anything,” Babette said.  There are no reliable statistics just as in the U.S.

Babette also described the community as young. She said, “We are just getting out of the proverbial broom closet.”  Echoing this description was Luc Martel, a Hellenist from Lyon. He said, “le Paganisme français est encore dans son enfance, il reste invisible et informel, même s’il est en phase de croissance.” [Translation: French Paganism is still in its infancy.  It still remains invisible and informal even in this growth phase.]

log20o10Who is coming out of the broom closet? Which paths are most popular? French Pagan practice spans the spectrum. To name a few, there are Polytheists, Hellenists, Ásatrú, Reconstuctionists, and Alexandrian and Gardnerian witches. However, most of my contacts said that Druidisme is the most popular. Mariane, an Ásatrú and director of the French division of the Pagan Federation International, said “[Druidism seems to be] the best organized and has the largest number of followers.”  Ana Lama, Druidress for Communauté de l’Arbre Druidique (CAD), adds:

We have an important connection to [Celtic] history on our own ground. We try as much as we can to rely on archeological discoveries…Most of our groups are built upon Gallic roots using Gallic tribe names and rituals. Many druidic groups… are affiliated with Great Britain groups.

A few people did speculate that Wicca has the greater following. However, this is difficult to assess because most French Wiccans are self-taught eclectic, solitary practitioners. There are very few covens or organizations outside of Paris and Lyon. The most well-known is the Ligue Wiccane Eclectíque based in Paris. It supports Cercle Séquana and the on-line magazine Lune Bleue.  Siannon and Xavier Mondon two Ligue Wiccane members, co-coordinate one of the few Wiccan festivals: the Festival de Déesses.

lweimb10

Why are most Wiccans solitary eclectics? The answer is simple: language. To date, the majority of Wiccan books are written and published in English. Therefore non-English speakers have had limited educational resources. Iconic books like Starkhawk’s Spiral Dance and Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, for example, have never been translated.  However, Scott Cunningham’s books are available in French. As a result, many French Wiccans follow his solitary teachings.

Along with reading limitations, there are also very few metaphysical shops. This problem affects all Pagans; not just the Wiccans. Consequently, as best stated by Luc Martel, “Le Paganisme reste encore largement une cyber-religion.” [Paganism is still largely a cyber-religion.]  Most communication, interactions and purchases are done online.  This cultural phenomenon supports Martel and Babette’s earlier point that the community is, as a whole, “young.”  Wide-spread internet usage began less than twenty years ago.

Despite the emerging Pagan culture, Babette says many Pagans are still “deep in the broom closet.” When I first asked why, I expected horrific stories of religious prejudice. But, in fact, I got a very different answer. As Siannon of Ligue Wiccane Eclectíque said, “Religion in general is a bit taboo.”

Sacred site along the Loire

Sacred site along the Loire

The French have a very different relationship with religion than Americans. As Babette explains:

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.

To understand this more clearly, it is best to briefly compare the religious ideology between the U.S and France. The U.S. Constitution supports religious freedom by protecting the right to worship.  All religions must be included or excluded where appropriate.  In France, the law supports religious freedom by legally excluding religion from public life – recognizing none. This is called laïcité or secularism.  As an example, in 2004, the French Government banned the wearing of religious symbols in schools including head scarfs, yarmulke, crosses, pentacles etc.  Could the U.S. government ever impose such a ban? Consider this PewGlobal comparison. 50% of Americans feel that religion is a very important and 53% said that it was “necessary to believe in God.”  In France, the figures are 13% and 15% respectively.  Which society is, as a culture, more secular?

Siannon and others argue that French laicité actually means “no religion unless you are Catholic.”  In 1995, the State created Miviludes, an office to watch for derive sectaire [Cultic Deviances.]  Unlike in the U.S., French law clearly defines cults in an effort to protect its citizen’s safety. In 2009, Miviludes fined a French Scientology group for engaging in fraudulent behavior. Although this is done in the name of secularism, the State’s cult watch is considered a threat to minority religious practice.

Due to this culturally-ingrained secularism, there are very few aggressive public challenges to Paganism. Xavier Mondon of Ligue Wiccane Eclectíque explains: “[People don’t even realize that] there are any pagans left today. For most people, [Paganism] is…old historical stuff.” Most of the population is indifferent or simply unaware. Others confuse it with silly fantasy or “charlatainism” as noted by Xael, a Wiccan eclectic and Shaman. While there are Christian zealots who confuse witchcraft and Satanism, this is infrequent and only happens in the private sector.

Leanthe, Fleur de Lyon: a symbol of peace and harmony for Pagans in Lyon

Leanthe, Fleur de Lyon: a symbol of peace and harmony for Pagans in Lyon

Aside from the limitations caused by language, misconceptions and the State’s cult-watch, there is a bigger problem facing the French Pagan community. As best stated by Luc Martel, “Le plus grand obstacle au Paganisme français, ce sont les Païens français !” [The biggest obstacle for French Paganism is French Pagans.]  All of my correspondents made this same statement in some form. Christophe, a Gardnerian Witch, blamed the large population of teenage practitioners who don’t know how to perform rituals or organize covens and who believe being a “witch” is trendy. Others blamed hot tempers, egos and individualistic natures. Babette blames the broom closet. She said, “French Pagans are so comfortable “hiding behind their [facades] and the internet [that] they won’t come out.”

However, the culture is changing. Druidress Anna Lama noted, At this moment we are trying to organize all Druidic groups under a Druidic council called Comarlia.  Along with the PFI, Ligue Wiccane Eclectíque and other such organizations, there are smaller groups forming locally and on the web. Of course, Babette and Luc Martel, with his groups Fleur de Lyon and Café Païen, are working on the community wreath project: Aureole Païenne. Babette remarked, “[We are] trying to be an active community. We have a long way ahead of us and the first steps are to let the different traditions speak to each other and create bridges.”  Echoing this hope, Xael said, “Things are changing.  In time, I believe Paganism will be recognized as a true spiritual [path.]”

The French Community Wreath
The French Community Wreath

Note: The original community wreath will be retired during an Ostara ritual at the Atlanta Pagan Market Place of Ideas next weekend.  A new wreath will take its place and begin its journey. Babette and Georgia-based NGS have exchanged ribbons to be included on each other’s wreaths. There have been at least two other U.S.-based community wreaths started since the original article was published.

Before we move too far into the future, let’s pause a moment to talk about Halloween. Not the spiritual vigil of Samhain or seasonal harvest celebrations.  Let’s discuss the wholly secular, American and Canadian holiday of Halloween, complete with candy, costumes and PVC pumpkins.

Vintage Halloween Pumpkin Men

Vintage Plastic Halloween Pumpkin Men by riptheskull

It’s fair to say that Halloween has a somewhat uneasy place in the family of North American holidays.  On the one hand, we, as Pagans, fully embrace the festivities. It is the one calendar event that openly clings to its Pagan origins. When else can you buy a pentacle in TJ Maxx?   But, on the other hand, the celebration mocks its own spiritual roots, something that we hold very dear.

We aren’t alone in our unsettled attempts to navigate through the Halloween season.  American religious and community leaders repeatedly attempt to ban the holiday.  Why?  The list is endless including concerns over the overindulgence in candy, the potential dangers of trick-or-treating, the increased popularity of over-sexualized or violently graphic costumes and, of course, its Pagan origins. But the majority of folks really just want an excuse to party. Halloween provides a unique canvas that can only be topped by the decadent bacchanalia that is Mardi Gras. (The Atlantic, 10-30-12)

Japanese McDonalds Costumes

Ronald McDonalds Girls
Photo courtesy of Japan-Talk.com

More recently, the Halloween debate has been getting larger – much larger. Over the past two decades, our secular holiday has been spreading across the globe, seizing the imaginations of youth cultures on every continent. The holiday has hitched a ride with missionaries, English language teachers and ex-pats. It’s being promoted by imported American cultural commodities like internationally-based Theme Parks, McDonald’s stores, Coca Cola products and Hollywood movies.  And, of course, the ever-increasing accessibility to the internet only fuels the proverbial fire.

In some regions, Halloween has been readily incorporated into long-established fall cultural traditions. In the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, Halloween finds itself at its ancestral birthplace. Today, the newly-imported version has mixed with surviving local customs associated with, among others, Guy Fawkes Day.  As noted by English writer, Chris Bitcher:

“Trick or treat has now actually become a bona fide tradition in the UK ….Fireworks were our autumnal treat of choice and for a good little while we fought off any competitor to it. But then we gave that up and decided to embrace both.” (Your Canterbury)

Disneyland Honk Kong on Halloween

Disneyland Honk Kong
During Halloween

Across the globe in China, Hong Kong and Japan, people have been enthusiastically adopting the holiday. Lisa Morton, award-winning writer of Trick or Treat: The History of Halloween, and noted Halloween authority, attributes this acceptance to the presence of two Disney Theme Parks  (Tokyo and Hong Kong), Hollywood horror movies and a fascination with American pop-culture. During my own discussion with her, Lisa added, “In Japan, there is a love of festivals and affection for costuming or “cosplay,” which is associated with anime and manga.”  In mainland China, Halloween is slowly replacing Yue Laan or “ Hungry Ghost Festivals,” during which people appease and entertain ancestral ghosts.  To fuel and solidify this cultural shift, China will be getting its very own “Haunted Mansion” at Shanghai Disneyland in 2015.

On the contrary, in continental Europe, Halloween has been receiving a less than welcome reception. In Oct 2012, the Polish Archbishop Andzej Dzięga, was quoted on Polskie Radio, as saying, “This kind of fun, tempting children [with] candy, poses the real possibility of great spiritual damage, even destroying spiritual life.” He warned against the “promotion of paganism” and a “culture of death.”  In 2003, CNN.com reported that France’s Catholics are trying everything to fend off a Halloween celebration they say is an “ungodly U.S. import.”

More recently, in Russia, the war over Halloween rages on. ABC Online reports that one Russian Education Ministry official called the holiday, a destructive influence “on young people’s morals and mental health.” The Moscow city schools banned Halloween celebrations claiming that they were concerned about, “rituals of Satanically-oriented religious sects and… the promotion of the cult of death.”  In the same article, an unamed Russian psychologist warned:

Halloween poses a great danger to children and their mental health, suggesting it could make young people more likely to commit suicide.”(ABC Online)

Despite this heavily Christian rhetoric, the resistance is not entirely about religion.  In our discussion, Lisa explained that, “While it is difficult to fully separate the expression of nationalism from religious tradition, many European countries, like France and Slovenia, have strong anti-American undercurrents.”  Religious fervor may, in fact, be serving nationalist interests.  Lisa said, in the end, she “believes the protests are far more about nationalism than religion.”

This is expressed in an article by Paul Wood, an Englishman living in Bucharest:

Just as the North American grey squirrel has made the red squirrel almost extinct so has the North American Hallowe’en taken over with extraordinary swiftness, extinguishing older, weaker traditions. This too is life, I suppose, but it is part of the process by which the whole world is becoming plastic. (Romania Insider)

Despite the rejection, Halloween is still growing, albeit very slowly, deep within European youth cultures.  In Italy, Halloween is called La Notte delle Streghe or “Night of the Witches.”  In Romania, home of the Carpathian Mountains, the local economy is profiting from world’s fascination with Count Dracula. What a better way to spend Halloween than in Transylvania on a “real Dracula Halloween tour” complete with a four-course dinner and prizes!

Now, let’s move into the Southern Hemisphere where Halloween faces a new obstacle. Simply put, the harvest-based holiday does not apply. In this part of the world, October 31st marks the middle of Spring, not Fall.  Over the summer, I was reminded of this fact when wishing an Australian friend, “Joyous Lughnasah.” She responded with an equally joyful, “Happy Imbolc.”

2671887 eeda9c5cIn the Southern Hemisphere, traditional festivals continue to be celebrated in accordance with appropriate seasonal shifts with no noticeable attempt to transplant Halloween to May.  However, youth cultures have been showing a small amount of interest in an October-based Halloween celebration, particularly in the English-speaking countries of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.  If for no other reason, the Northern holiday offers a chance to party and dabble in the macabre – even if it’s completely devoid of its seasonal aspects.

What about the Americas?  As noted above, the countries in the Southern Hemisphere do not recognize Halloween chiefly due to geographical complications.  However, the closer you get to the U.S., the more our secular Halloween has influenced local October traditions.  In Costa Rica, for example, locals “have taken this “foreign” holiday and used it to revive an ancient Costa Rican custom: Dia de la Mascarada Tradicional Costarricense or Masquerade Day,” reports the Costa Rican News.

Closer to home, in Mexico, the famous and mystical celebration of Dias de los Muertos is, now, often called Dias de las Brujas or “Day of the Witches.”  Halloween practices have been woven in to this largely religious holiday.  As expected, there has been backlash from Mexican nationalists and religious leaders.  However, Mexico is just too close to the U.S. to prevent the blending of two very similar October holidays. And that continues to happen in both directions.

Just as Halloween has infiltrated Mexican culture, elements of Dias de los Muertos are now showing up within U.S. Halloween celebrations.  In an interview, Lisa Morton explained:

Last year I saw my first piece of major Dias de los Muertos American retailing – the Russell Stover candy company released several themed candy bars… That’s probably a sign that Dias de los Muertos is starting to be accepted into the American mainstream. It’s certainly very popular in those areas of the U.S. with large Latino populations.  More people seem to be joining in large-scale Dias de los Muertos celebrations in America every year.

Dias de los Muertos Candy

Dias de los Muertos Candy
Photo Courtesy of Lisa Morton

There are some areas of the world in which Halloween has yet to find a home for reasons already listed. These areas include the Islamic Middle East, the heavily Christian areas of sub-Saharan Africa, Israel, India and parts of South East Asia.  I’ll go out on a limb and add Antarctica to that list – just to complete the geography lesson.

What does all this mean for Pagans? First of all, in every article for or against Halloween, a discourse emerges surrounding the origins the holiday.  In many of these reports, the author includes a reasonable account of Halloween’s Celtic origins and Samhain-based traditions. Modern Pagan language is, unwittingly, hitching a ride on Halloween’s broomstick.

With the growing public interest in Halloween, we may find ourselves more able to openly join in the global conversation and, at the same time, deal with our own reservations. Maybe we should embrace the evolving holiday, “seize the spotlight” and become the stewards of Halloween worldwide?  After all, the U.S. media loves interviewing witches in October.  Or, we could completely renounce the secular holiday and its derogatory effigies. We could join others in protest with slogans like “We’re a culture. Not a costume.”

Regardless of our personal feelings about the secular celebration, Halloween continues to gain popularity worldwide, year after year.  As a result, every October when the veil thins, a brand-new door opens for us providing a unique opportunity for a teachable moment.  Now, we can say that both the ancestors and the world are listening.

 

Trick or Treat: The History of Halloween

Note about Lisa Morton: Trick or Treat:  A History of Halloween. This book is an historical and cultural survay of Halloween’s evolution from early Celtic traditions and lore through the ages and across the globe. It is a good read for history junkies, like myself, or students of comparative culture. Within her detailed work, Lisa did reach out to consult Wiccans, world-wide, and gave a decent nod to the modern-day Pagan spiritual celebrations of Samhain or Halloween. 

(Pagan) News of Note

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 13, 2008 — 1 Comment

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

A botanica, Centro Botanico La Santisma in San Diego, burned down on Saturday after a lit candle sparked a larger fire.

“A lit candle in a voodoo supply shop sparked a fire, destroying the San Diego store and damaging an adjacent taco shop. San Diego police Sgt. Ray Battrick says the blaze’s intense smoke caused officials to evacuate several homes in the Grant Hill neighborhood when the fire broke out early Sunday morning. Firefighters said the Centro Botanico La Santisma store was a total loss, with nearly $350,000 in damages. The store sold herbs, amulets and other items related to Santeria, voodoo and other religions.”

Luckily, no one was injured in the blaze. A chilling reminder to all Pagan and occult stores to be careful with candles, and to have a healthy fire-insurance policy.

Jay Clarke looks at the large variety of Samhain/Halloween events happening in Salem during the month of October. Including the Salem Witches Halloween Ball (not to be confused with the Cabot Witches Ball).

“On Nov. 1, the Day of the Dead, another massive party – the Salem Witches’ Halloween Ball – also takes place at the Hawthorne and on the adjacent grassy Common ($150 per person). The Common, fittingly, is where some scenes of the popular Hocus Pocus movie about long-dead witches were filmed … Yes, Salem has real witches – more than 3,000 of them, who practice Wicca. They detest both the stereotype of wickedness as presented in the Wizard of Oz and the nose-twitching antics of Samantha in television’s Bewitched.”

I think “detest” is a somewhat strong term. I happen to love the “Wizard of Oz”, and find “Bewitched” (and the play/film that inspired it “Bell, Book, and Candle”) to be quite charming at times (especially Jack Lemmon as Nicky). Also, $150 dollars? Yikes! That’s a little too rich for my blood.

According to Arnold Conrad, the former pastor of Grace Evangelical Free Church in Davenport, non-Christians around the world are praying for Obama to win the presidential election.

“There are millions of people around this world praying to their god—whether it’s Hindu, Buddha, Allah—that his opponent wins, for a variety of reasons. And Lord, I pray that you will guard your own reputation, because they’re going to think that their God is bigger than you, if that happens,”

Conrad made these remarks at a recent McCain rally in Iowa (before McCain ever arrived). This is certainly a shock to the Pagans and non-Christians who are planning to vote for the Republican, Libertarian, Constitution, or Green party come November. One can only wonder what will happen to Conrad’s faith should God let his “reputation” be harmed by an Obama win.

Are comic-book superheroes thinly-disguised gods for our modern age? Performance artist Justin Lamb seems to think so.

“I wanted to do a show exploring why superheroes and comic book culture have gotten so popular lately. I started researching it and started finding a lot of weird little similarities between superheroes and religion, which has a nice little nerd following of it’s own if you haven’t noticed. I wondered if subconsciously, do the things that attract people to these religions also attract people to these heroes.”

Perhaps Lamb has been reading “Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes”? Or he could just be a big Grant Morrison or Alan Moore fan.

In a final note, the New Statesman publishes an interesting examination of secularism, and recent attempts to push forward a watered-down “positive secularism” by France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Pope Benedict XVI.

“To speak of positive secularism is to imply that there are two kinds of secularism, one good, the other bad. The supposedly good one, put forward by the Pope and his acolyte Nicolas Sar kozy, is a secularism that would allow politics to mingle with religions. One which would, for instance, turn a blind eye to sects and their actions, one which would accept that people be treated differently according to their faiths, one which would blur the frontiers between the public and private spheres. Sarkozy certainly knows a great deal about the blurring of the two distinct worlds whose separation has been France’s trademark for at least two centuries.”

Only one kind of secularism guarantees the rights of minority religions, and it isn’t the “positive secularism” envisioned by the Pope. Creating a “secularism with exceptions” sets us on a dangerous road where some are more equal than others.

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

The fashion/celebrity blog Jezebel takes a look at the latest issue of French “Vogue”, and a fashion photo shoot “realized” by editor in chief Carine Roitfeld that focuses on the occult.

“…inside, we found the “Sacrement Inspiree” fashion shoot photographed by Terry Richardson and “realized” by editor in chief Carine Roitfeld. The theme? Voodoo/wicca/satanism!”


Fashion design by Alexander McQueen, photo by Terry Richardson.

Among the designers highlighted in the shoot is Alexander McQueen, who recently unveiled a witch-themed fashion line.

“McQueen, the greatest theatric in fashion, didn’t just focus on witches, but ruminated visually on the occult, paganism and Egyptian devils. The only surprise is that the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano has not since penned an editorial condemning the show.”

As for the shoot itself, Roitfeld seems to be a fan of left-hand fashions and has inserted serveral “Satanic” symbols to spice up the mix, prompting Jezebel to exclaim that “Devil worship is the new black!”


Satanic fashion?

Will occult and Pagan themes continue to influence high fashion? Will any of the more sensible designs be co-opted by the masses? Will Satanism find new life in Haute couture? Does this predict a future in which Pagan festivals set the tone for fashionistas everywhere? These questions, and many more, remain to be answered.