Archives For Illinois

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.

Photo: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Photo: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

  • It’s always worth a mention when the New York Times takes an interest in modern Paganism. Their New York-focused City Room blog highlights the Wiccan Family Temple Academy of Pagan Studies in Manhattan, interviewing two of the program’s students. Quote: “People go to school to study the things that interest them most; some people go to law school, others to medical school,” [Shantel Collins] said. “I want to be a religious leader in my community, so the path I chose is to become a high priestess. I am learning how to counsel people in my community. No one is born a pastor or a reverend or a rabbi — you have to work at it, and that’s what I’m doing. So for me, these classes are worth every minute and every penny.” I suspect this piece came about because the New York City Wiccan Family Temple is not afraid to promote themselves to the media. I know I’ve received a fair share of press releases from them, and it’s a tactic that does succeed in breaking through to the mainstream media from time to time. 
  • Virginia Lt. Governor candidate E.W. Jackson, who I profiled recently here at The Wild Hunt, was (unsurprisingly) a big hit at the recent Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference. Quote: “Audience members clapped most intensely when Jackson focused on the rights of parents to lay down rules for their children and on the need to preserve belief in Christianity as the foundation of the United States. “Freedom is the ability to worship God as we see fit and not be persecuted for it,” he said.” Jackson, while revving up the conservative Christian base, has also been walking back past statements he made that implied yoga can lead to Satanism. In his 2008 book “Ten Commandments To An Extraordinary Life” Jackson called tarot reading and Witchcraft “wrong and dangerous.”
  • At Sojourners Magazine, Rabbi Seth Goren discusses Christian privilege and “how the dominance of Christianity affects interfaith relations.” Quote: “Even in interreligious settings intended to be neutral, Christianity retains primacy. Exchanges emphasize concepts in Christianity, such as belief and faith, and downplay the Jewish stress on action, behavior, and ritual […] In clergy gatherings, I feel the expectation that I should know Augustine and Aquinas without a corresponding expectation that Christian counterparts have heard of Rabbis Akiva or Eliezer […] Even on a relatively level playing field, I start from a defensive posture and find myself envious of what Christians take for granted that I can’t and don’t.” Go read this, and share it. I’m hoping the relatively high-profile nature of the venue will prompt some reflection. 
  • Chas Clifton reports that the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has cleared the way for a suit against Oklahoma’s license plate design to move forward. Why is the license plate being challenged? Because it allegedly endorses “Indian religion.” Quote: “Cressman, who says he “adheres to historic Christian beliefs,” objects to the image of a Native American shooting an arrow toward the sky. He claims the image unconstitutionally contradicts his Christian beliefs by depicting Indian religious beliefs, and that he shouldn’t have to display the image.” The plate is based off of a famous statue depicting a sacred act, but does it really endorse a religion? It seems rather tenuous, considering the arguments we hear consistently about “secular” Christian crosses. You can’t have church-state separation absolutism without it cutting both ways. A “win” for this Christian could create ripples he may not enjoy.
  • Advocacy organization Amnesty International has condemned the rise of blasphemy cases in Egypt, saying it uses defamation of religion as a way to silence critics. Here’s more on the issue from Daily News Egypt: “Slapping criminal charges with steep fines and, in most cases, prison sentences against people for simply speaking their mind or holding different religious beliefs is simply outrageous,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director, in the report. Luther added that defamation of religion charges should not be used to “trample over people’s right to freedom of expression and conscience” 
The "Other Religions" section of the Urbana Free Library (post-culling).

The “Other Religions” section of the Urbana Free Library (post-culling).

  • The picture you see above is the “Other Religions” section at the Urbana Free Library in Illinois after a hugely controversial culling that has gained national attention from library observers. In essence, any book acquired more than ten years ago was culled from several non-fiction sections before local outcry halted the process. This has left books on Pagan religions decimated, with only 3 or 4 left visible on the shelf. Libraries are in important first step for many people exploring our faiths, and for those looking to understand us, and decimating collections like this does more harm than I think people realize. Not everyone has consistent and reliable access to the Internet, and even if they do, it doesn’t replace reading seminal books like “Drawing Down the Moon” or “The Spiral Dance.” I’m hoping to have more on this story soon, as Urbana is my old home-town, and I know several library workers there. Stay tuned. 
  • The United Nations World Conference of Indigenous Peoples is taking place in New York, September 2014. A recent gathering in Alta, Norway, home of the Sami People, resulted in an adopted outcome document for the conference. Quote: “Our purpose was to exchange views and proposals and develop collective recommendations on the UN High Level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly to be known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (hereinafter referred to as HLPM/WCIP), which will convene in New York, 22 – 23 September 2014. This document sets forth our recommendations along with the historical and current context of Indigenous Peoples.” I think the document is important and thought-provoking reading for anyone interested in indigenous and Native American issues. 
  • Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee writes about the holiness of the Earth for the Washington Post’s On Faith section. Quote: “I deeply feel that we need to reclaim our spiritual relationship with this beautiful and suffering planet, feel it within our hearts and souls. We need to develop an awareness that the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the energy we use, are not just commodities to be consumed, but part of the living fabric of a sacred Earth. Then we are making a real relationship with our environment, respecting the land on which we live, the air we breathe. We still carry the seed of this primal relationship to the Earth within our consciousness, even if we have long forgotten it. It is a recognition of the wonder, beauty, and divine nature of the Earth.”
  • Move over Beltane, because Summer Solstice is all about sex! Quote: “In the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice has a history of stirring libidos, and it’s no wonder. The longest day of the year tends to kick off the start of the summer season and with it, the harvest. So it should come as no surprise that the solstice is linked to fertility — both of the vegetal and human variety. ‘A lot of children are born nine months after Midsummer in Sweden,’ says Jan-Öjvind Swahn, a Swedish ethnologist and the author of several books on the subject.” 
  • There are some places in Scotland where being transgendered will get you accused of being a witch. Quote: “Walking down the street I’d get a lot of abuse sometimes. They’d shout at me a lot, call me gay and even accuse me of witchcraft. I feel like I’ve lost a lot of my friends because I had to leave Johnstone. My past was almost completely wiped away.” The ugly strain within humanity that persecutes “the witch,” the “other,” is still very much a part of us I’m sad to say. 
  • The commemorative blue plaque for Doreen Valiente at her home in Brighton has gained the notice of the BBC. Quote: “Doreen Valiente, who was known as the “mother of modern witchcraft”, lived in Tyson Place until her death in 1999 and is to be honoured with a blue plaque on the side of the block of flats where she lived. Ralph Harvey who read the eulogy at her funeral, described her as ‘a very gentle lady’. ‘Witchcraft was always shrouded in mystery and medieval superstition,’ he said. ‘Doreen and Gerald Gardner brought it into the 20th century, they blew away the cobwebs and this was the renaissance of witchcraft as it truly is.'” You can read all of my previous coverage of the plaque, here

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 Spirit Gathering, one of America’s oldest and largest outdoor Pagan festivals, has announced that it has moved its base of operations from Missouri to Illinois. This is the festival’s second move since cutting ties in 2009 with Wisteria (and Ohio-based Pagan-friendly campground).

“We are looking forward to having the Pagan Spirit Gathering within a short drive from the greater Chicago area again,” says PSG’s founder Selena Fox.” We haven’t been this close to Chicago since PSG 1983 when our site was on private land along the Rock River. This is the first time that PSG will be in Illinois, and we have been getting very positive responses to the news from Illinois Pagans as well as Pagans from around the country.”

This latest move was triggered when their previous home, Camp Zoe, a campground in Missouri’s Shannon County, was raided by federal and state law enforcement. Camp Zoe currently faces asset forfeiture (in short, the seizing of the land by the federal government), you can read two different perspectives of this situation here, and here. With Camp Zoe’s final fate uncertain, and accusations of the property being maintained for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing or using controlled substances” being thrown around, PSG’s organizers had little choice but to break ties.

“Since learning on November 9th about legal difficulties now connected with the Camp Zoe site in Missouri that we have rented for the past two years, the Pagan Spirit Gathering Executive Committee has begun a search for a new site for PSG 2011. The dates for PSG 2011 remain June 19-26.”

Pagan Spirit Gathering’s new Illinois home will be Stonehouse Park in Earlville, an hour’s drive West of Chicago. The campground prides itself as a friendly host to LARPs and re-enactment groups from “medieval to the modern,” and boasts many modern amenities that should please the less seasoned camper (like myself). Pagans in the upper Midwest already seem enthused at the prospect.

“There are so many perks to the location they may as well call it a Pagan KoA or Jellystone Park ;) I’m still surprised about cell phones and WiFi. Hmmm… they just need a cartoon mascot LOL! Indoor stages, possible cabin rentals with kitchenettes and bathrooms, RV hookups… wow! Even folks who can’t physically handle a traditional fest would be able to attend.  And for me… jeez, why not have it in my own back yard? Off I-39 & I-88? That’s really centrally located for a lot of people, even flights, buses and trains with the shuttle service, *and* far enough away from the Tri-State to keep busy road-leery travelers happy.”

Registration is now open, and they are accepting proposals for workshops, rituals, and other presentations. Having attended last year’s PSG as a presenter, I can tell you that PSG presented some of very best of festival culture and Pagan community. If the money/schedule stars align, I’d love to attend again, and perhaps I can convince many of my Illinois-based friends to come along as well!

A reader has tipped me off to the fact that Andrew L. Thomas, a youth minister and track coach in Rossville, Illinois, has been charged with five counts of sexual exploitation of a child in Federal Court (additional link). This is in addition to local charges of criminal sexual assault with an underage boy from earlier this year.

“According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Thomas used a scheme in which he identified himself on social Internet networking sites and in text messages or e-mails as a female under the names of Stephanie, Jenn, Jessica or Kayla. Thomas is accused of using the personas to entice the minor-age boys, sending them pornographic female images and in return soliciting pornographic images of the young boys. Thomas, the charges indicate, also used the names Stephanie Danielson, Kayla Wilson, Jennifer Martinez, Jessica Gonzalez, Justin Danielson and Justin Williams with the e-mail addresses: justjock89@aim.com, Kaylaw21to@aol.com, Foryouhopeulike@aol.com, Luknfrmystudboy2@aim.com, Stephaniedanielson89@hotmail.com and stephaniedanielson1989@yahoo.com. The indictment alleges a timeline for each of the counts, starting as early as January 2007 and running through March 2010.”

This is relevant to our communities because while Thomas was allegedly abusing young boys, he was also leading an anti-Pagan crusade in order to drive Witch School out of Rossville, Illinois.

“Andy Thomas, youth minister at the Rossville Church of Christ, said residents had a spiritual responsibility to drive the witches out. If they didn’t, he said, young people were in danger of being pulled off the Christian path …”

The tensions between the residents of the Rossville-Hoopeston area of Illinois and Witch School are touched on in the documentary “Hoopeston”.

Ultimately, the ongoing local hostility did prove successful in driving the Witches out of the area, and Witch School relocated to the friendlier climes of Salem.

“Witch School Headquarters are closing in the Rossville-Hoopeston area of Illinois. Witch School settled from Chicago to Central Illinois in 2003, and became the center of protest by many of the Christian Churches in the area. A well-documented spiritual battle has been waged for the last six years, with open hostilities and long quiet truces by various Christian factions. Simply put, this has not allowed Witch School the staff and resources needed to keep up with their growth. On Halloween, Witch School Rossville will close permanently, and Witch School will be moving its HQ to ‘The Witch City’, Salem Mass.”

If there’s a larger lesson to be learned from the sad incident, it may be that those most willing and eager to persecute others often have some sort of dark secret of their own to deal with. Usually these secrets are pedestrian when exposed to daylight, an affair, simple hypocrisy, fraud, but occasionally true monsters are exposed when scrutiny is shifted from the targets to those pointing the finger. Andrew L. Thomas was considered a pillar of his community, a moral leader, and there’s no telling how these revelations, and the resulting trial, will affect a community that is already dealing with severe problems. Here’s hoping the victims will see justice done.

Top Story: The Irish Times reports that Barry Raftery, emeritus professor of archaeology at UCD, and one of Ireland’s leading Celtic scholars, has passed away after a long illness.

“Professor Barry Raftery (Professor Emeritus, Archaeology, University College Dublin) died peacefully at St. Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin on Sunday August 22, 2010. Professor Raftery retired as Professor of Celtic Archaeology in the UCD School of Archaeology at the end of August 2007 after a long and internationally distinguished career. As a former student wrote in appreciation, Barry was an inspired teacher and communicator, always encouraging colleagues and students in developing their research and careers. His work and humanity will ensure that he will be always remembered and treasured.”

Raftery was probably best known to many Celtic-oriented Pagans as the author of “Pagan Celtic Ireland: The Enigma of the Irish Iron Age”, a tome that has been recommended in various contexts within Celtic Reconstructionism and modern Druidry. While Raftery was not a Pagan, and almost certainly didn’t write his works with reviving Celtic forms of pre-Christian religion in mind, I’m sure there are many Pagans who are raising a glass in honor of his work.

Who Was That Atheist? After shocking the town of Marion, Illinois by threating them with a lawsuit if they approve a Ten Commandments monument without also opening it up to a Wiccan display, The Southern digs into the history of atheist activist Rob Sherman.

In 1986, Sherman started his first legal battle against the mixing of government and religion, as he challenged the mayor and city of Zion, located near the Wisconsin border, on the inclusion of religious symbols on municipal logos, material and property. His efforts were successful and landed his name on the front page of the Chicago Tribune, on the city’s 10 o’clock newscasts and on national television talk shows, including those of Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue and Larry King. He said he took up the mantle of promoting his cause across the state and nation simply because no one else was doing so. “I’m the only one doing it. Most people suffer from poultry syndrome, so they don’t take on these cases. They’re chicken.”

It remains to be seen if there will be a Constitutional showdown in Marion. The city council may decide to indefinitely table the decision on whether to accept the offer of the Christian monument on public lands rather than risk expensive litigation. However, if legal action does progress, with a Wiccan caught in the middle, I’d like to find some on-the-ground sources living in or near Marion that can clue me in to local Pagan attitudes towards this situation.

Is Haiti’s Government Shutting Out the Diaspora? This past Friday Haiti ruled that hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean was ineligible to run for president, most likely stemming from residency requirements. While Jean initially said he’d respect the decision of the Provisional Electoral Council, he now accuses the government body of “trickery”, and implies that there’s an effort to shut out candidates from the Haitian diaspora.

“Jean told VOA he is appealing to Haiti’s government to address a number of concerns about the approval process used by election officials, who authorized 19 candidates for the presidential vote. He said candidates who have lived outside Haiti were mostly excluded by the provisional electoral council, or CEP. “It looked like every other candidate that was out was a diaspora candidate and that is a form of prejudice on the CEP’s part,” he said. As part of his election campaign, Jean had hoped to reform the relationship between Haiti and the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who have fled the country. He said, if elected, he hoped to change the constitution to remove a ban on dual citizenship, and offer many Haitians abroad a chance to vote in elections.”

Among the other candidates that were rejected are Jean’s uncle, Raymond Joseph, the former ambassador to the United States. Both say they will challenge the ruling, though the government says there is no appeal to the CEP’s decision. Some are saying a political crisis could emerge over this decision. Meanwhile others, like political activist and Vodou practitioner Ezili Danto, say this media circus is all a distraction from larger political games being played out behind the scenes. Both Danto and Lewis G. Parker argue that Wyclef, even if he could run, would be a problematic figure to lead the country. As for the Haitian diaspora, would it be beneficial to allow dual citizenship and voting rights? In what direction would it steer the country?

More Visionary Folk from the Electric Eden: The Observer has a profile of author Rob Young and his new book “Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music”, which explores the mythic history of folk music in the UK, starting with its revival at the hands of Cecil Sharp.

“Sharp met hundreds of what he called “the common people”, who sang songs to him that had been passed down to them through the generations, songs that retained their mystery and power even though the events that inspired them – anything from a good harvest to the murder of an infant – had long since passed into myth. The songs were, in fact, the transmitters of those myths, evoking an older, predominantly agrarian England that increasingly existed only in memory.

What happens to that mystery and power, though, when a folk song is “put into an evening dress”? That is one of many complex questions that resounds through Electric Eden, a book that, for the most part, is a surefooted guide to the various tangled paths the English folk song has since been taken down by classicists, collectors, revivalists, iconoclasts, pagans, psychedelic visionaries, punks and purists.”

I’d just like to say that I’m very, very excited to read this book (now if it would just get a release date in the US). I predict it will become a must-own for those tracking the birth of modern Pagan music, which I feel also began with Sharp, and then bred with the very folklorists that helped launch Wicca into the spotlight. For more on this, and two other promising books dealing with music, please check out my post from last month.

An Unforeseen Upside to the Mosque Debate? Over at The Moderate Voice Kathy Gill, inspired by the rancor of the “ground zero mosque” debate, starts to approach the question of who exactly profits from the dominance of monotheism.

“If politics is both “a system used to allocate those things which are important to society” and “the authoritative allocation of value,” then religion plays an incredibly large role in politics because religion is the basis, the foundation, of most people’s value judgments. And the differences between political parties in the United States are reflected in values: this is good, that is bad (distribution of charity – church, state or other means); this is right, that is wrong (abortion, death penalty, who is taxed and how). When investigating murder or other nefarious deeds, the first question is this: who benefits? So what is the role of monotheism in our modern society? Who benefits?

Gill quotes Jonathan Kirsch’s “God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism” in her piece, which comes to some uncomfortable conclusions regarding the benefits of monotheism. One wonders how many modern polytheists once asked the questions that Gill now poses.

That’s all I have for now, but before I go I just wanted to quickly link to two more Pagan perspectives on the Park51 community center and mosque that I overlooked in yesterday’s post. “The Mosque, the Mirror, this Moment…” by T. Thorn Coyle, and “Why The New York Mosque Debate matters to Pagans” by Ed Hubbard. Both are worth checking out.

Have a great day!

Top Story: In Marion, Illinois, the city council is weighing the decision of whether to allow a local group to erect a Ten Commandments monument on the city’s Town Square. Enter atheist activist Rob Sherman, who says he’ll bring a lawsuit against the city if they erect the Ten Commandments monument without also allowing a display by a local Wiccan.

“If a Ten Commandments monument is placed on Marion’s Tower Square, resident Robert Donelson wants equal access to share the views of his Wiccan religion … “If Christians are going to have their viewpoint up here, let them at least put up ours,” he said. Donelson, who said he has been a Wiccan for five or six years, was introduced at the news conference by Rob Sherman, the atheist from northern Illinois who has warned city leaders they could be in for a legal battle if the Ten Commandments go up on public property … “I am calling Mayor (Bob) Butler’s bluff,” Sherman said. If the city allows the Ten Commandments, it must also allow room for other religious viewpoints, Sherman said.”

According to Sherman, Mayor Bob Butler has vowed to get the Judeo-Christian monument erected, and that he would only allow the viewpoint of the majority to be represented on the Town Square. Mayor Butler goes further in local paper The Southern, and mocks the Wiccan faith.

“I do not believe Mr. Sherman’s comments are worthy of comment. Period,” he said of Sherman’s threat of a lawsuit. Butler did say that the chances of a Wiccan viewpoint making it onto Tower Square were slim. “I only recently heard of the Wiccans and I am not impressed. They probably come from a different planet, maybe the same one Mr. Sherman comes from,” Butler said.

So much for equal access! I guess to Mayor Butler, some faiths are more equal than others under the law. It looks like Sherman will get to file his lawsuit against Marion, though there’s still a chance the City Council will back down under the threat of encroaching Wiccans. This isn’t the first time the seemingly frightening prospect of Wiccan participation has been used to influence local politics, though in some cases they are used as a fig-leaf of diversity. I hope that Robert Donelson knows what he’s getting himself into.

The Divine Feminine in Judaism: Tablet Magazine profiles Kohenet, the Hebrew Priestess Insitute, and other groups on the fringes of modern Judaism that (re)embrace the Divine Feminine, earth-based spirituality, Jewitchery, Jewish Paganism, and related concepts. Tablet notes that Kohenet priestesses, unlike Jewish converts to Paganism, stays rooted in a Jewish identity.

Back when Jewish Renewal and Starhawk were struggling to get off the ground, the notion of Jewish paganism was unimaginable because it defied the monotheistic core of Judaism. In recent years, though, Kohenet and other earth-based Jewish groups are challenging that monotheistic essence; in their view, Judaism and paganism can coexist. As Hammer and Shere write in an unpublished manuscript about Hebrew priestesses, Kohenet holds “a soft position with regard to monotheism.” While their work “conceives of God/dess as a unity,” they “welcome women who experience the divine as a multiplicity.” But unlike Starhawk and other Jews who became pagans, today’s earth-based Jews ground their theology explicitly in Jewish traditions and texts. “What’s new here isn’t that Jews are doing paganism,” says Jay Michaelson, a columnist for The Forward and an expert on Jewish spirituality who confesses that he has become more “pagany” over the last few years. “It’s that they’re staying Jews.”

The article also notes that these movements, despite their growing popularity in some areas, haven’t found much traction within mainstream Judaism, and two quoted Rabbis are quite critical (one calls Pagan Jews “perverts”). However, The Forward’s Jay Michaelson, who’s written about Jewish Paganism, notes that “pagany” elements have been emerging in mainstream synagogues lately, so who knows what the future may hold for the Jewish Priestesses, Jewish Witches, and Jewish Pagans.

Cults or Pranksters? The Lancaster Intelligencer Journal explores whether a recent grave robbery (on Friday the 13th) was the work of a disturbed prankster, or a practitioner of Palo Mayombe. So far local authorities seem to be reserving judgement, and the expert the paper talks to doesn’t seem to be heading in sensationalist directions.

Tony Kail is a Tennessee author and educator who has studied what he calls “magico religious activity.” He spoke to Stamford police about their case and is consulted by other departments about similar cases. Kail cautioned against jumping to any conclusions about a grave robbery. “A disturbed grave alone,” he said, “is not an indication of a magico religious activity,” he said. “Historically, many of the incidents involving grave thefts are done by those who aren’t involved in actual magico religious cultures. Individuals who ‘roll their own’ take elements from established religions and create their own subcultures.” Bones used in African-based religious traditions are used to represent ancestors, he said. But most bones used in Palo Mayombe are obtained through legal means, said Kail, who wrote “A Cop’s Guide to Occult Investigations” and “Magico Religious Groups and Ritualistic Activities: A Guide for First Responders.” Though disturbing, not every grave robbery is linked to rituals or the occult.

Tony Kail of Worldview Consulting is given high marks by Pagan author Dorothy Morrison, so hopefully things won’t veer into racial or religious profiling for what may be the work of a single disturbed individual. Crates, candles, and even animal parts, do not a religious ritual make. Whoever was the culprit, let’s hope he or she is soon caught and brought to justice.

Queens Tribune Faces Scrutiny: Those of you who followed my coverage of New York City Councilman Dan Halloran’s political campaign may remember that it was the Queens Tribune who outed him in a sensationalist fashion, nearly derailing his campaign in the process. Many pointed out that the Queens Tribune had a sister company that did consulting for his opponent, and that this created a conflict of interest for the paper, something the paper strenuously denied. Now the Queens Tribune is facing scrutiny again, as it’s been revealed that Democratic State Sen. Shirley Huntley paid 30,000 dollars to Multi-Media, run by Queens Tribune Executive Vice President and Associate Publisher Michael Nussbaum, for political consulting.

“It’s uncomfortable and it crosses the line,” said [Richard] Parker, a fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center. “You should not have a newspaper executive simultaneously serving as a consultant to a candidate being covered by the paper.” Huntley said Nussbaum’s dual roles don’t pose any conflicts for her. “I hired him as a political consultant,” she said. “Everyone knows he’s with the paper. I assume this is a separate business.” Huntley, facing a tough primary against Democrat Lynn Nunes, insisted she wasn’t looking to garner favorable coverage from the weekly newspaper by hiring Nussbaum.

The article notes that it’s an “open secret” that Nussbaum runs both businesses, and mentions the Halloran campaign as a previous instance where the interests of the consulting company and the paper seemed to merge in an uncomfortable fashion. Will this latest coverage finally “out” Queens Tribune as a partisan paper? How impartial can you be when your parent company is cutting checks from the people you’re supposed to cover? I wonder how many local journalists are now comparing Multi-Media’s client list against the Queens Tribune’s coverage?

Two Kinds of Witchcraft in India: Two separate articles published the same day in the Calcutta Telegraph spotlight two different kinds of Witchcraft in India. The first looks at the problem of witch persecutions and killings, around 2,500 in the last 14 years, and efforts to “rehabilitate” women who’ve been ostracized.

Three months ago, it was decided that Purangi Nag, a Munda woman who worked in the Soongachi tea estate in Jalpaiguri’s Matelli block, was a witch. Purangi’s husband had died seven years ago; her son and his wife were killed by a rogue elephant. The widow’s neighbour, Birbal, has a son who fell ill soon after these mishaps. Purangi, he declared, was a witch who had cast a spell on the neighbourhood. One night, Birbal and three of Purangi’s neighbours — all men — assaulted her, injuring her grievously and forcing her to flee with her seven-year-old grandson, Dhiren, to her brother in a neighbouring village. When she approached the local thana, she was handed over to a temporary shelter run by the North Bengal People’s Development Centre.

The second profiles popular Indian Wiccan Ipsita Roy-Chakraverti, the “beloved witch”.

“When I started in 1987 in Calcutta, ‘witch’ used to be a bad word, an abusive expression,” she said. She went on to recount how she has struggled lifelong to remove the stigma attached to the word. In the process she has had to face “brickbats”, often quite literally. But Ipsita’s success in this context is limited only to a section of the urban populace. In Indian villages, ‘witch’ is not only a “bad” but also a dangerous word. Even in the city, a witch is generally that evil woman who has stolen one’s husband. How did the word ‘witch’ acquire a sinister ring and the worshipper of Goddess Diana become the ‘daiyen’ or ‘daini’? Ipsita said it was because of the marginalization of pagan cultures by mainstream religions. “This battle was a gendered one as well,” she added. Witchcraft has feminist tendencies as witches were the “worshippers of the mother goddess”, while conventional religions promoted patriarchy.

Wicca, particularly among the young, and in urban areas, continues to grow. Roy-Chakraverti has worked, sometimes with the government, to prevent witchcraft slayings and female infanticide. Can the growth of Wicca, and the subsequent redefinition of the term “witchcraft” change the deadly superstitions in some rural areas? What tensions will we see as these phenomenons start to converge? India is a prime example of how witch-killings is quickly becoming a Pagan issue, even though those harassed, abused, and murdered, would never claim the term for themselves.

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

The Cook County Crackdown: If you thought unconstitutional and redundant laws against fortune telling only happened down south, think again. The Cook County Illinois board of commissioners (that would be the county Chicago is located in) are proposing a new ordinance that would ban “fraud” under the guise of spiritual services for pay.

“The proposal, from Commissioners Edwin Reyes, Bridget Gainer and Gregg Goslin, includes a swath of spirituality. It would affect mediumship, palmistry, card reading, astrology, seership, “crafty science,” and fortune telling that might take place as gatherings, circles and seances. “This was something that was highlighted to say there is a variety of different things out there that could be covered by certain deceptive practices,” Gainer says. She says the measure was suggested by the sheriff’s department, and that more people dealing with a tough economy might be hoodwinked by frauds posing as spiritual leaders.”

First off, there are already laws against fraud and deceptive business practices in Illinois, and I can’t see how this new ordinance would have protected a recent high-profile Chicago-area victim of the old-as-the-hills “cursed money” scam. Further, how will this ordinance, if passed, be enforced, and who gets to decide what’s fraud? If you pay for a reading at a party, can you call the cops the next day? If you drop $20 when the local Pagan group passes the hat and you later have buyers remorse, can you press charges? The language is so broad (“circles”, “gatherings”), that it easily includes any Pagan ritual where any sort of money changes hands. Since this proposed ordinance doesn’t seem to ban charging for “spiritual services” per-se, how will it actually prevent the most outrageous instances of blatant grifting?

Another Interview with Alex Mar: “American Mystic” director Alex Mar is interviewed by MTV Tr3s about her documentary, which features Pagan priestess Morpheus Ravenna, and discusses gaining the trust of her subjects, her own background, and resources for folks interested in modern Paganism.

“That’s an interesting question. First off, let me say that I’m not advocating any one spiritual path over another. But that said, I know WitchVox to be a useful site for pagans or people who are pagan-curious to connect locally. I was told over and over again how much easier it’s become for people who are curious about different forms of witchcraft to find mentors now that the Internet exists. The Wild Hunt is a widely read pagan blog about the latest politics and culture that’s relevant to the pagan community. And there are major conventions a few times a year where young witches, warlocks, Druids, you name it, get together and mix and network and learn new techniques and dance to gothic metal bands.”

I’d like to thank Alex for the plug, and note that the “gothic metal band” she’s most likely referring to is Pandemonaeon, who played at this year’s Pantheacon. “American Mystic” is currently playing at the The Tribeca Film Festival, and is one of twelve entries in the festival’s World Documentary Feature Competition for 2010.

Guess Who Else Didn’t Like That Episode of  Supernatural: It wasn’t just Pagans who were a bit annoyed by the Supernatural episode “Hammer of the Gods”, where various non-Christian deities were portrayed as shallow flesh-eaters getting worked over by Satan, Hindu activist Rajan Zed (you may remember him as the Hindu priest who got heckled by Christians on the Senate floor) blasts the show for its portrayal of Ganesha and Kali.

“Acclaimed Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada (USA) today, said that Lord Ganesh and Goddess Kali were highly revered in Hinduism and such absurd depiction of them with no scriptural backing was hurtful to the devotees. Ganesh and Kali were meant to be worshipped in temples or home shrines and not to be thrown around loosely in reimagined versions for dramatic effects in TV series.”

Even Annalee Newitz at io9, a fan of the show, slammed the episode, saying it should never have been made.

“My point is just that this episode, in attempting to answer that “what about other gods?” question, made things infinitely worse than if we’d just been left wondering. Now we’re left thinking that somehow Christian deities are more powerful than any other deities in the world. Dean goes so far as to call them “just monsters.” Which A) doesn’t really fit the show’s premise, which is that Christianity is one mythological system among many; and B) makes it seem that Supernatural buys into the idea that Christianity is somehow the “best” or “most powerful” mythological system out there. Thumbs down on that one.”

Many have defended Supernatural as an “equal opportunity offender”, but I’m not sure that’s true. While Christian themes are treated lightly and irreverently at times, it still acknowledges and reinforces the inherent supreme power of the Christian mythos. It has also been careful to steer clear of the third rail of secular pop-culture fantasy portrayals of Christianity by not making Jesus (or even God for that matter) a character. Supernatural, in other words, doesn’t mind being flip about Hinduism, Taoism, Vodou, or Paganism, but won’t court real controversy by having Jesus (or the Virgin Mary) show up and throw down.

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

News media in East Central Illinois have been following the case of Andrew L. Thomas, a youth minister and track coach in Rossville, Illinois who’s been charged with the rape of 16-year-old boy he was mentoring.

“Andrew Thomas made his first appearance in court today. He’s been the youth minister at Rossville Church of Christ for three years, according to court records. Prosecutors say he had sex with a 16 year old boy he was mentoring. They say it happened over the last few months. The victim came forward to police. Thomas was arrested last night. If convicted, Thomas faces up to 15 years in prison. His friends, family, and church community are standing behind him. Prosecutors say more charges could be filed. They are investigating whether he may have child pornography on his computer.”

While these accusations against a Christian clergyman seem sadly pedestrian in an age of massive abuse scandals, this case draws special attention for our community. For while Thomas was allegedly abusing young boys, he was also leading an anti-Pagan crusade in order to drive Witch School out of Rossville, Illinois.

“Andy Thomas, youth minister at the Rossville Church of Christ, said residents had a spiritual responsibility to drive the witches out. If they didn’t, he said, young people were in danger of being pulled off the Christian path …”

The bitter irony of a man trying to protect “young people” from Witches while allegedly abusing them hasn’t escaped the folks at Witch School (since relocated to Salem, Massachusetts), who have released a statement concerning the matter.

“Pastor Andy Thomas, which claimed superior rights has now been arrested for Criminal Sexual Assault against a minor, and will face trial for them. He is alleged to have had sexual encounter with a 16 year old boy under his mentorship, and is under investigation for child pornography. He is still innocent until proven guilty, these are serious charges that question the intentions and his moral standing in the community. Our heart goes out to his alleged victim and there families, as this must be very difficult to deal with. We feel for the Rossville community, which trusted this man to give them clear spiritual advise, and instead betrayed them, in this case with their own children. In truth, he abused their trust as well, when he led them in vigorous protest against Witch School, which had never once involved in any activity to harm the community. Pastor Andy Thomas worked hard to assure the community and the nation knew how awful it was that Witch School was, while he was the individual who was bringing real harm to the community.”

You can see further reactions from Witch School at Rev. Don’s Vlog.

While his church community claims to be standing behind him, one has to wonder how many in Rossville are now questioning the past actions of this pastor, and if his obsession with driving out the “harmful” Witches wasn’t an externalization of the same deep seated psychosis that allegedly drove him to abuse children. Did he believe that by driving out the “other” he could also drive out the same demons that haunted him? Or was his religious zeal all a smokescreen for a deep-seated abusive nature? In any case, no matter what the ultimate outcome, this Witch-hunter has fallen.

After years of Witch School International trying to build a “Salem of the Midwest” in the Rossville-Hoopeston area of Central Illinois, a move that garnered plenty of publicity and hostility as the Witches tried to co-exist in a town dominated by conservative Christians dealing with a depressed economy and a troubling meth problem, the school has decided its time to move on.

“Witch School Headquarters are closing in the Rossville-Hoopeston area of Illinois. Witch School settled from Chicago to Central Illinois in 2003, and became the center of protest by many of the Christian Churches in the area. A well-documented spiritual battle has been waged for the last six years, with open hostilities and long quiet truces by various Christian factions. Simply put, this has not allowed Witch School the staff and resources needed to keep up with their growth. On Halloween, Witch School Rossville will close permanently, and Witch School will be moving its HQ to ‘The Witch City’, Salem Mass.”

As rumored since earlier this year, Witch School will stop trying to build their own Salem, and simply join the Salem that already is. Becoming a part of the massive tourist-friendly oasis custom-built for media-hungry Witches with outsized personalities. With the move now underway, Witch School CEO Ed Hubbard wants us to know it wasn’t because of Christian hostility that they are going, but because of a lack of communications resources.

“The Churches are not the cause, they are a symptom of the problems in rural areas, and that is the lack of useful educational resources. While the United States Urban areas have been undergoing a communications and information revolution, the Digital Divide between those areas and places like Rossville IL, which has very few Internet carriers, all very expensive, and very undependable, has continued to grow. Our Internet provider has terrible customer service, and been down as much as a week at a time, on a regular basis, and we use the same one the city government uses. Also attempts to provide computer training and employment saw pressure on participants to quit and boycott the business. The Churches believing that they were ‘protecting’ the community, have rejected and blocked several attempts by Witch School to improve Internet Service in the area. So it has become necessary to find a place where we can get the online access and staff we need to continue our growth.”

Not that it will stop Hoopeston-area pastors from bragging anyway. While I’m fairly certain their Internet service will be better (and the neighbors friendlier) in Massachusetts than in rural Illinois, it isn’t a leap to assert that the costs of doing business will be far higher in Salem, so it remains to be seen how well Witch School will actually do. As for Witch School’s students, they seem for the most part to be understanding and optimistic about the change in location. No doubt you can expect Witch-School folks to be popping up on reality television shows and taking advantage of national Halloween-oriented coverage of Salem any time now.

An interesting business article about fortune-telling in Will County, Illinois (that would be around Joliet for those unfamiliar with Illinois) caught my eye today. It seems the Will County Board have decided that all new businesses offering any sort of psychic service, from astrology to “magic mediunship”, can only open in a commercial district.

“If you want to get paid to read fortunes in Will County, you’ll have to open up shop in a commercial district. Before a zoning ordinance mandating that was approved by the County Board last week, those who dealt in the occult could pretty much do it anywhere. But the change came as the county decided to go over its long list of ordinances — some of which were outdated because they were enacted when the county was mostly rural and didn’t take into account such “new age” businesses as tattoo parlors, body piercing studios, dog watchers and, yes, fortunetellers.”

To avoid an uproar, the board allowed pre-existing businesses (about 11 or so) to be grandfathered in. Still, this places a significant hardship on a rather transient industry that is often based in the home of the practitioner. It would be little wonder that in these tough times, and with psychic and spiritual services seemingly weathering the storm well, more and more folks trained in tarot or astrology would decide to supplement their income. Indeed, David Dubois, Will County Land Use Department supervisor says that increased interest in people (legally) opening these businesses is what prompted the change.

“The change in law regarding fortunetellers and tarot readers began after several people had inquired about opening such businesses, said David Dubois, Will County Land Use Department supervisor.”

The County Board no doubt thinks this will discourage “blight” in residential areas (by restricting not only fortunetelling but many other potentially home-based businesses) while boosting revenue in commercial districts, but I think they’ll be somewhat disappointed. Having to rent a separate space for a business that can often see rather sporadic revenue is often a non-starter for most (honest) psychic or fortune-telling individuals. What I predict will happen (using no psychic powers I might add) is that many of these would-be fortunetellers (not to mention the dog-walkers and tattoo/piercing artists) will simply go underground. Working quietly for cash, and denying the County tax and licensing revenue they could have reaped from a less restrictive measure. The whole issue strikes me as somewhat discriminatory against folks who largely come from and service low-income areas (how many tattoo parlors or tarot-readers are going to open up shop in a McMansion). A disappointing measure, that in these times could be disastrous for families living on the edge of solvency. Yet another entry into the quiet war against psychics and seers.

The Chicago Sun-Times wins the prize for being the first mainstream paper to explore the “mini-rise of the Wiccans” indicated in the recently-released American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) data. Too bad it’s so sloppy and lazy in its execution. First there’s the rookie mistake of referring to Wicca as “Wiccanism” (I mean really, in 2009?), then religion-beat reporter Mike Thomas starts off  with the hoary and groan-inducing “real Witches aren’t fantasy witches” bit that we all love so much.

“They don’t toil over bubbling caldrons or cook lost kids. They have no use for flying monkeys. And their spice racks are more apt to contain ginger or paprika than eye of newt.”

Then there is the matter of interview subjects.

“…there’s even a Witch School. An outgrowth of the nationally popular and long-active Web site witchschool.com, the Downstate Rossville-based organization currently offers three monthly courses and returned to town earlier this month after a five-year absence. Local classrooms include the Occult Bookstore in Wicker Park and the Life Force Arts Center in Lake View. [Rev. Don] Lewis said there’s talk of expanding to St. Louis and “a number of different regions.” [like Salem?] On a recent Friday night, Witch School CEO Ed Hubbard visited the Occult Bookstore to talk on the topic of “Magick for the Masses.” Few people attended, save for a handful of employees and one drop-in, but the show went on.”

Now I’m not bagging on the Witch School folks here, they are a (relatively) high-profile organization located in Illinois, so it’s only natural a journalist would contact them. I’m just troubled that the reporter went to exactly one source for this piece. That might fly when your doing a write-up of a metaphysical store in rural Michigan, but not in Chicago where there are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of potential interview subjects. Nor does Thomas interview someone with the ARIS study to get a better sense of the growth of new religious movements, or attempt to contact any academics who study Pagan religions for insight into modern Paganism’s growth.

Using the ARIS data to merely write yet another tired “meet the Witches” piece, complete with the usual patina of superciliousness, seems an utter wase of journalistic space. Franky, if the Sun-Times doesn’t feel that Wicca’s continued growth is worth more than calling one organization and a drop-in at the local occult shop (for a talk lead by the same group) then they should just not bother. There are several interesting stories to be told spinning out of this ARIS data, and I’d rather wait for them to emerge slowly than bide my time with inconsequential filler like this. Honestly, I’d rather read yet another piece on how well psychics are doing during the recession than this mad-libs-style approach to religion reporting.