Archives For Max Beauvoir

This past Thursday marked the two-year anniversary of the massive earthquake that almost completely destroyed Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince, killing hundreds of thousands, and throwing the country into chaos. A number of mainstream news outlets have marked the occasion with retrospectives and updates on Haiti’s progress, and  various ideas of what Haiti (and the hundreds of NGOs operating in Haiti) should do to speed recovery. By all accounts building and rebuilding in Haiti has been slow, the green-lighting of new projects frustratingly intermittent, and often controlled by outside charities instead of the newly elected government. Today, over half a million Haitians still live in tents and temporary shelters, with many more living in “houses” that are quake-damaged and unsafe. Meanwhile, the subsequent cholera outbreak, which sparked a wave of religiously-motivated anti-Vodou killings in rural areas, continues to rage on at an alarming rate.

Many in the modern Pagan and occult communities feel a deep affinity and love for Haiti as the home of Haitian Vodou, a syncretic faith tradition that has seen a growing number of Pagans become students and initiates of its teachings. After the earthquake many Pagans reached out to help, with former COG First Officer Peter Dybing there on the ground in the immediate aftermath, providing emergency services. Dybing continues to work for the reconstruction of Haiti through a charity called “100% for Haiti,” and urges fellow Pagans to support their work.

“Out of the rubble has risen a Phoenix of compassion and hard work. Artists in Saint Croix U.S. Virgin Islands banded together and held an action to benefit the community and 100% for Haiti was born. Over the last 20 months much has improved. We have constructed a school of ply wood, purchased tables, hired teachers, built facilities, provided meals to the children and even have began to insure the kids get some medical attention. All accomplished with a pluralistic humanitarian intent.”

But what of Vodou voices on this anniversary? We know that Haitian President Michel Martelly wants to build a tourism industry around Vodou, but what other roles and initiatives are Vodouisants a part of? Max Beauvoir, the appointed “supreme master” of a coalition of Haitian houngans, seems to be acting as the government’s official face of Vodou, meeting with visiting dignitaries like Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and giving interviews to foreign journalists, though American press outlets seem to have avoided Beauvoir lately, perhaps because of the uncomfortable things he says about Christian missionaries in Haiti. Haitian-born anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse, writing on the occasion of this anniversary, bemoans the “geopolitically driven myths” about Vodou, and worries about the effects of this “spiritual uprooting” in the wake of the earthquake.

“In my early teens, in the aftermath of migration and bombarded with narrow and negative views of Haiti, I vividly recall deciding to go back there only when the political situation changed. I ended up pursuing a degree in anthropology for the same reason and in the process became too cognizant of the ways Vodou, as an African-based cultural heritage, was under siege. By the time I made my first return, missionaries proliferated and provided social services neglected by the compromised and combative state. Conversion to Protestantism was de rigueur. We were not immune.

My family’s connection to the spirits, which was always tenuous, had practically disappeared as various parcels of land had been sold off and were now inhabited by strangers or newcomers to Port-au-Prince.The diasporic ties that bind continued to fray. No one cared as the stigma had taken hold. This was most evident in the neglected peristyle or temple that was once revered as sacred space where community gathered. When a cousin boldly stated “bagay sa yo pa a la mode ankò” (or “such things are no longer in style”), he was echoing a broader sentiment. Many among the young see serving as old fashioned. The spiritual uprooting of the last three decades was exacerbated by the devastating earthquake nearly two years ago that also fractured so many temples. That was a sign of things to come. Ours eventually crumbled as the last of the stalwarts converted.”

While Vodou is facing challenges in post-earthquake Haiti, it continues to be a part of the Haitian psyche, and influences its artists as they try to make sense of what has happened to them.

To get a look at Haiti’s thriving art scene, that first afternoon, photographer Ron Haviv and I turn up at a downtown art community, which is hosting its Second “Ghetto Biennial.” In its confines, a good bit of the art is under-laid in a sort of vestigial nod to West Africa by an undercurrent of animal-sacrifice religion of voodoo. It is a religion practiced by few, yet known (and feared) by many. And it makes for some striking art. The Ghetto Biennial is a high-energy visit. People are moving everywhere. Out front are tall, black-painted, angular metal sculptures with actual human skulls, also painted black, attached to their tops. “Yes, those are real,” says a man watching the sculptures when I experimentally tap one of the skulls with my index finger. “The artist gets them because his atelier is over near the graveyard.”

You can read more about post-earthquake Haitian art, here.

Haitian Vodou, like Haiti itself, seems to be at a crossroads. More and more people outside of Haiti are drawn to Vodou, but the faith faces grave challenges both structural and spiritual. As Haiti’s slow reconstruction moves forward, will Vodou manage to thrive in its home, or will it be changed irrevocably by the pressures of this chaotic time? There are no easy answers, but those of us invested in Haiti, Haitian culture, and Haitian Vodou, must remain vigilant to their ongoing struggles and challenges. Haiti must not be lost down the memory hole as new tragedies or events spring up.

One week ago, former Haitian dictator/”president-for-life” Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier returned to Haiti from exile in France. There’s been much speculation as to why Duvalier, the son of the infamous François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, chose this time to return. Whatever the reason, two days later he was charged with corruption by a Haitian court, though human rights organizations also want him charged for his role in the torture and death of thousands of Haitians. Duvalier, while president of Haiti, was head of a paramilitary force known as the “Tonton Macoutes,” who enforced the will of their leader and used Vodou as an element of psychological warfare against the populace.

Vodou leaders were also members, giving what came to be called the Militia of National Security Volunteers (known as MVSN, for its French acronym) an almost-religious aura. Opponents were killed in the night and their bodies were often placed on public display. “The Duvaliers are estimated to have ordered the deaths of between twenty and thirty thousand Haitian civilians,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement this week.

Employing vodou leaders and illiterate peasants was integral to the Duvalier’s method of overseeing the torture and murder of political opponents and robbed public funds, biographer Elizabeth Abbott writes in Foreign Policy. “Duvalier’s genius lay in how he designed their hierarchical structure, chose their (usually humble) social origins, and included priests (voodoon and Christian) and rural section chiefs who ruled their fiefdoms with iron fists and reported personally to him any subversive activity or even thought.”

Despite this, some Haitians, including Vodouisants, have welcomed the return of Duvalier, seeing his family’s reign as a time of relative stability, and preferable to the policies of left-leaning president Jean-Bertrand Aristide (currently in exile) and his supporters. That number may include Max Beauvoir, the appointed “supreme master” of a coalition of Haitian houngans, who has been linked to Baby Doc by the New York Times.

“Voodoo and politics have long been intertwined in Haiti, with some past leaders reaching out to voodooists as a way of burnishing their populist credentials. Beauvoir has himself been linked with François Duvalier, or Baby Doc, the dictator who fled the country in 1986 after a popular uprising against him. And Beauvoir opposed Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s rule, becoming a hated figure among loyalists of the former Catholic priest.”

So the return of Duvalier has introduced a new element of instability in an already unstable situation. Dredging up a past that is still fresh for many Haitians. Into this morass comes conservative Libertarian politician Bob Barr, who is now acting as the former dictator’s “voice to the world.”

“Now, with Duvalier once again seeking to become a public figure in Haiti, he is working to rebuild his public image in the eyes of both Haitians and the international community. In order to do this, he has enlisted the help of numerous U.S. attorneys, including none other than former Libertarian Party presidential candidate and Clinton impeachment champion former Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA). Barr will serve as the former dictator’s “voice to the world,” and he told CNN that he plans to bring Duvalier’s “message of hope to the world“ […] One has to wonder how Barr — who ran for president in 2008 to “deliver a refreshing message of liberty” — can reconcile his supposed right-libertarian beliefs with being on the payroll of a notorious autocrat who shut down elections and the free press and tortured nonviolent dissidents.”

Barr is a known quantity to many in the modern Pagan community for his 1999 campaign to have Wiccans banned from military service. A stance he (somewhat) recanted in 2008 when running for president on the Libertarian party ticket, only to re-embrace it once he longer had to curry political favor.

“… if I were in the Air Force and was being commanded by an officer who practices hedonism as a religion (another part of the definition of “pagan”), and who dances around a circle of stones in the woods carrying a lighted candle, I would be more than a little worried about following him into battle.”

So it seems that Pagans serving in (and receiving fair accommodation from) the United States military is something he doesn’t like, but acting as an ambassador for an ousted ruler who happily employed practitioners of Vodou in a paramilitary organization that terrorized Haiti is just fine. As for the well-documented crimes against humanity and his country perpetrated by Duvalier, they are, according to Barr, mere “allegations.”

Barr, who represented Georgia’s 7th District from 1995 to 2003, and was the Libertarian Party’s 2008 presidential nominee, said Saturday that the allegations against Duvalier are just that. “I deal with allegations all the time,” he said. “They are the cheapest commodity on the market.”

What we are witnessing is a desperate PR campaign by a fallen dictator, one who is already cynically manipulating an already desperate people. Whether Duvalier came of his own accord, or was manipulated into place by the Haitian government or the international community, few can determine what the results of introducing this wild card may be. However this goes, his presence does not signal the salvation of any community in Haiti, certainly not those who practice Vodou, and his alliance with Barr should raise many troubling questions as to how this came about and who exactly benefits.

CNN posted a special report yesterday on the anti-Vodou cholera murders, interviewing Haitian Vodou leader Max Beauvoir in the process. While this isn’t a new story for CNN, it’s important that Haitian Vodou voices are being heard one year after the initial quake almost completely destroyed the capital city of Port-au-Prince, killing over 200,000 people.

For more video from Haiti, check out “Haiti: One Day, One Destiny” from the National Black Programming Consortium. The section dealing with Vodou, “Vodou and Haiti’s Recovery,” can be seen at The Root.

“Haitian-American filmmaker Michele Stephenson traveled to Haiti on behalf of the National Black Programming Consortium to capture the struggles of Haitians a year after the devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. This clip, from a documentary by Stephenson, is one of several that will run on The Root this week in collaboration with the NBPC. The multimedia project, entitled Haiti: One Day, One Destiny, will include other documentaries, blogs and several live Web discussions. You can reach the NBPC site at blackpublicmedia.com.”

Tensions are high, with Vodou still being blamed for outbreaks of cholera. Though there are bright spots one year later, the political landscape is still in chaos, and the future uncertain. Whatever the future holds, Haiti’s Vodou practitioners and heritage must be protected, and not allowed to become a convenient scapegoat for pundits and unscrupulous Christian NGOs.

For more on my coverage of Haiti and Vodou from this past year, please check out my Top Stories of 2010 for a round-up of relevant links and analysis.

Since I first reported on Vodou practitioners being killed and persecuted in Haiti over frustration and fears concerning the ongoing cholera outbreak the situation seems to have only gotten worse. At the beginning of December around 12 Vodouisants had been killed by angry mobs, now that number has ballooned to over 40.

Officials counted 40 people killed – mostly voodoo priests – killed in one region of Haiti, the AFP news agency reported, with five others killed elsewhere. “The victims… were stoned or hacked with machetes before being burned in the streets,” communications ministry official Moise Fritz Evens said. Haiti’s communications minister said she abhorred the killings and insisted that the answer was to improve general education about how cholera is transmitted. “Voodoo practitioners have nothing to do with the cholera epidemic. We must press for an awareness campaign about the disease in the communities.”

Prominent Haitian Vodou leader Max Beauvoir says that the government isn’t doing enough to protect Vodou practitioners, and that the leaders of other faiths in Haiti have had a hand in stirring up this current deadly anti-Vodou hysteria.

“My call is to the authorities so they can assume their responsibilities,” said Beauvoir, who fears more attacks against voodoo devotees. Most of the lynchings occurred in the southwest of Haiti but also in the center and the north. […] Beauvoir said he suspected that representatives of some other religions might be stirring up popular fears against voodoo practitioners using the cholera as a pretext. “I saw this coming. Since the earthquake some people have been blaming us, saying that we cast spells and did evil things which brought the earthquake as a punishment,” he said.

The impact of education campaigns by the government and NGOs seem to be of limited effectiveness in stemming this disturbing trend of anti-Vodou violence. This is only exacerbated by the ongoing instability of the government in the still-contested elections. The real question now is how much worse will it get? Will these attacks and murders against Vodou practitioners and priests continue to escalate? What role has anti- Vodou propaganda had in this violence? I can only pray that an end to this madness and chaos comes soon.

We’ve passed the six month anniversary of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated Port-au-PrinceHaiti’s capital. The quake killed nearly a quarter of a million people, and over a million are still homeless. After the quake, this blog tried to focus on the often unheard and maligned voice of Haitian Vodou within this tragedy. First we had to deal with triumphalist smears concerning Haiti’s history from a noted Christian pot-stirrer, then there was a veritable onslaught of of pundits, many of whom had never set foot in Haiti, opining on how Vodou was the main detriment to its forward progress and recovery.

“The kind of religion one practices makes a huge difference in how the community lives — for better or for worse. I suppose it’s at least arguable that the Haitians would be better off at the Church of Christopher Hitchens rather than as followers of voodoo.- Rod Dreher, Beliefnet

But amidst the wave of stunningly wrong-headed criticism,  there were also several pro-Vodou voices, within and without Haiti, that came to the fore. Most notably Max Beauvoir, the appointed “supreme master” of a coalition of Haitian houngans, who ended up being the de facto voice for Haitian Vodou to the Western press in the months after the quake. While I counselled reporters to remain aware of the decentralized nature of Haitian Vodou,  the much-publicized attack on Vodouisants by evangelical Christians in Haitiand its aftermath, created little room for nuance in those hectic first weeks (not to mention tensions over insensitive and controversial missionary activities). Sadly, the centrality of Vodou in Haitian society was often ignored, though there were the occasional nods in that direction.

So where are we six months later? While aid has been pouring in, there have been many accusations that reconstruction is going too slowly, or in the wrong direction, prompting a “blame game” amongst various parties. Longtime Haiti activist and advocate Dr. Paul Farmer says that the U.S. needs to allow Haiti to lead reconstruction efforts if the country is to survive, while Haitian-born human rights attorney and Vodouisant Ezili Dantò (aka Marguerite Laurent), echoing Farmer, says that some U.S. aid initiatives are more geared towards corporate profits than uplifting the Haitian people.

“Instead of enabling the millions of small Haitian farmers to become food self-sufficient by growing rice, millet, corn and a variety of fruits and vegetables, however, [U.N. envoy Bill] Clinton has announced that Coca-Cola will be running a project to use Haitian fields to grow mangoes for a new drink. In the last six months, a number of industrial parks have been built by foreign corporations to take advantage of Haiti’s $3-a-day minimum wage. The “new Haiti” after the earthquake is not much different from the old Haiti the United States has been attempting to bring forth for two centuries: a place governed by business-oriented Haitian technocrats who take their marching orders from Washington.”

There do seem to be growing signs of tensions between the struggling Haitian government and the United States, Haitian President Rene Preval has rejected U.S. Senate recommendations on holding an election for his successor, though an election date in November has been set (Preval is prevented from running again under Haitian law). It was noted that the National Confederation of Haitian Vodou had a hand in helping to select the eight-member Provisional Electoral Council. As to who will be President, that seems to be anyone’s guess. Singer and activist Wyclef Jean is supposedly mulling a run, though some Haitian commentators think he hasn’t met all the requirements to do so.

As for coverage of religion in Haiti, not much of it has focused on Vodou. Though there was a nice article from last week about a yearly pilgrimage to the Saut-d’Eau waterfall in the town of Ville-Bonheur, venerated both by Catholics and Voudisants for its healing properties.

“She needs Erzulie Dantor’s help, she said. As she spoke of her wish, a crowd began to gather a few feet away. A female worshiper was calling Erzulie, hoping to invoke her presence. “The spirit that is here in the yard, come and grant me my chance,” the woman sang. “Erzulie Freda bring me luck. If there is a spirit in the yard, I will name its name and adore it.” As she sang, the pitch of her voice began to crack. She seemed to be in a trance, her lithe body falling onto the rocks. As others watched — now believing that Erzulie had possessed her — revelers rushed to her side, whispering their demands in her ears, sure they were speaking to the goddess.”

There were also some photo essays of the recent Plain Du Nord Festival, which draws thousands of Vodou practitioners. But beyond that, not much else.

Haiti is in a perilous situation. The massive tent cities are at the mercy of the weather should a hurricane hit the already-struggling country. Lawlessness and rampant sexual violence are an ongoing problem, and the country could easily collapse politically. If the birthplace of Haitian Vodou with its rich culture of arts and music is to continue, it is imperative that we don’t allow it to fall off our radar. It isn’t so much a question of donations now (though you can still do that), but of making sure those who hold the purse-strings chart the country on a course of renewal and self-sufficiency. To make sure the first priority are the people of Haiti, not the profits of outside interests. While I know we face our own problems at home, I hope we don’t lose sight of Haiti, especially at this crucial moment in history.

Top Story: New York City Councilman (and out Pagan) Dan Halloran, despite attending a Tea Party event looking for challengers to Congressman Gary Ackerman in November, and gaining some vocal grass-roots support, has decided to not run a new campaign so soon after gaining political office.

“I’m flattered and grateful they think I’m that caliber of a candidate,” Halloran said. “But right now I’m worried about running the district. I just came off a cycle in a bitter election, so I’m not ready to run another race.”

Of course, like any good politician, he did leave the door of opportunity open just a crack, in case the situation changes.

“I’ll sit down and talk to [local party leaders], but I’m not inclined to run … I haven’t ruled it out, but Gary Ackerman has tremendous financial and political resources. My big picture right now is the state of the city and that our district gets its fair share of money.”

So if Ackerman should experience a scandal, or a big drop in popularity, he might change his mind (but then, so might a lot of other people). In the meantime, I think it’s smart of Halloran to demure from attempting to jump from City Councilman to Congressman so quickly, it shows that he’s thinking about the long-term future, and his constituents.

In Other News:

Mambo Racine on Max Beauvoir: Vodou “supreme chief” Max Beauvoir has been getting the lion’s share of press attention as the voice of Vodou in post-earthquake Haiti. That’s certainly been true here, as much as anywhere else, due to the lack of press attention to divergent opinions and groups inside Haiti (with the occasional exception). Now Mambo Racine, from the Roots Without End Society, gives her take on the enigmatic leader that has captivated the press.

“Max Beauvoir is a Houngan. He is the head of a secular organization of Vodouisats called KNVA, of which most Vodouisants are NOT members. He keeps making these power grabs, he thinks if he proclaims himself the “head of Vodou” enough times, people might believe him. He is a sexual predator. He takes money from people with AIDS, when he knows he can’t cure them. I don’t think highly of him … It is courageous of him to speak out against violence against Vodouisants, even though it was cowardly of him to threaten Haitian President Rene Preval with “death wanga” a year or so ago when Max was not given the post on the Electoral Council that he wanted. And it is idiotic and inflammatory for him to call for “open war”, instead of “self-defense”. He’s a real mixed bag, and I think we need to recognize that he is a man like any other man, not a god, not the “Pope of Vodou”, not the head of all Vodouisants in Haiti, but a man.”

So if his power base is so small, as Mambo Racine hints, why does he get so much attention? Partially it comes from his willingness to seek out reporters and talk to them, but it also come from the status accorded to him by the New York Times, who dubbed him “Vodou’s Pope” and the “supreme master” of Haitian Vodou. There’s nothing a busy reporter likes more than a centralized leader who can speak for a whole faith or class of people. Interestingly, both Racine and Beauvoir, in their own ways, are outsiders who converted to Haitian Vodou and now hold positions of authority. Their non-Vodou pasts, willingness to self-promote, and familiarity with Western media, may go a long way towards explaining how they became two of the most well-known Vodou practitioners in North America.

A Pagan Military Wife: Alison Buckholtz writes an appreciation of military wife blogs for Slate.com, including Just Another Snarky Navy Wife, a blog written by a Pagan.

“My favorite blogger, Just Another Snarky Navy Wife, is based in Monterey, Calif. After bitching about TriCare, the military insurance system, which “sucks the balls of hairiness” because it declined to pay for her anesthesia during a gum graft, she writes about the difficulty of living a double life. “It’s hard being a liberal Pagan milspouse,” she confesses. Like many of these bloggers, she prefers to stay anonymous for her husband’s sake: In this case, “He’s shouldering enough just being a liberal service member with a penchant for logical thought in socio-political discussions.” But her problem, in a nutshell, is that members of the nondenominational, otherwise open-minded church she joined to find community off the base are giving her the stink eye for being married to the military. She wants to tell the hippies who founded the church that she has more in common with them than they think, but she’s furious with them for judging her harshly based on the fact that her husband is a service member.”

I can imagine it’s hard to be a “liberal Pagan milspouse”, especially when it comes to finding community, so let’s give her some appreciation and love. Add her to your blogroll, subscribe to her feed, and leave some supportive comments. You may also want to thank Alison Buckholtz and Slate.com for including a Pagan military voice in their article.

In Defense of that Wiccan Altar in Shop Class: The DesMoines Register features a guest editorial by college student Kat Fatland that chastises the closed mind of Dale Halferty, industrial arts teacher at Guthrie Center High School, who’s been suspended for refusing to allow a Wiccan student to build an altar table.

“If Dale Halferty, the Guthrie Center teacher who banned his student from creating a Wiccan altar in shop class, actually believes his own words, that “this witchcraft stuff… is terrible for our kids. It takes kids away from what they know, and leads them to a dark and violent life,” then Halferty should not be a teacher.”

I can only agree, and Fatland’s editorial may be prophetic if Halferty decides to turn this issue into a stand-off.

More on Repent Amarillo: Since my spotlight article Wednesday on the anti-Pagan militant group Repent Amarillo, the word has continued to spread throughout the blogosphere. This Christian cult is so extreme that Little Green Footballs calls them the “Texas Taliban”. Meanwhile, local citizens are starting to organize against them as the hate-organization picks a new target.

“They showed up at Cheetahs, a local strip club, to tell people they were going to hell … They told the manager, who is a mother of 3 that she is going to hell and they used their PA system and mega-phone to tell people going into the business. The Amarillo cops were called, but they did nothing.”

Such brave Christian soldiers. You have to wonder how many of them were, or are, patrons of that same establishment when they aren’t busy protesting it. I wish the locals every bit of luck in fighting this disturbing group, and will continue to monitor their activities here at this blog.

That’s all I have for now, but before you head out, let me second Chas Clifton’s recommendation that you check out the Pagans for Archaeology interview with Australian Pagan scholar David Waldron, author of “Shock! The Black Dog of Bungay: A Study in Local Folklore. Lot’s of great insight into folklore, pagan survivals, and dogs.

Have a great day!

In the day-to-day nature of Internet news, it’s often difficult to keep track of stories as they develop. So here’s a round-up of follow-ups, updates, and recent developments in stories previously reported here at The Wild Hunt.

About that Icelandic Curse: I recently mentioned that the Icelandic Heathen organization Ásatrúarfélagid, led by Chief Godi Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, had made the news for a high-profile (and apparently successful) curse against Iceland’s enemies. Pagan Newswire Collective reporter, and host of the popular Asatru podcast Ravencast, David Carron, spoke with Hilmarsson about the article and brings us the following statement.

“The article in Iceland Review is somewhat slanted, as the TV interview cited was based on the assumption that we had ritually cursed named members of the British and the Dutch governments. The ritual in question was a protective one ( with the subtext that those who would try to harm our nation would be exempt from the protection / sanctuary ) and its intent was to push aggression back to where it belongs. However some people observing the ensuing developments have given us credit for all sorts of things including Gordon Brown’s unstable temper, the freak winter in Britain, and the troubles befalling and in the end collapsing the Dutch government.

I did own up to writing a scathing poem about Gordon Brown in the time honoured tradition of “níðvísa” and I am sure that long after his name is forgotten on the British Isles there will be Icelanders dancing on his grave and and finding inventive and practical ways of pouring / spraying ale upon it.”

So there you are, not so much a “curse” as protection working that is successfully pushing aggression back to its source. Carron is currently arranging an interview with Hilmar Hilmarsson for Ravencast, and I’ll keep you posted as to when that’s available.

The Air Force and Pagans: A lot of news has been made recently regarding the Air Force Academy and its new stone circle dedicated to Pagan services, but this ethos of acceptance and accommodation stretches beyond the academy to the Air Force itself. A memo has been brought to my attention that shows Major General Cecil Richardson, Chief of Chaplains for the USAF, listing Wiccan and Pagan Spring holidays along side other faiths as deserving of accommodation by all commanders.

“Thank you for your continued support of Airmen who request religious accommodation. Airmen who are allowed to practice their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion are generally more spiritually fit and better able to handle the rigors and stressors that come with deployments and a high OPSTEMPO (Operations Tempo) … Wiccans and other followers of Earth-based religions will observe Ostara, the spring equinox, on 21 March followed by Beltane, a celebration of the abundance of the fertile Earth, on 1 May.”

So it looks like the Air Force really is taking the inclusion and accommodation of Pagan airmen to heart. I’d love to know if any of the other US Armed Forces have released similar memos. If they have, please feel free to drop me a line so I can share them with my readers.

The Syracuse Pagan College Chaplain: Student paper The Daily Orange follows up on the appointment of Mary Hudson as Syracuse University’s first Pagan chaplain. While Hudson says that she’s only received positive feedback, reporter Rebecca Kheel finds a more mixed response on the Internet.

“Mixed reactions arose since Hudson was recognized as a chaplain. Hudson herself has only received positive feedback, but there has been an online backlash in comments sections of articles about Hudson’s appointment. Other chaplains said it is too early to make a judgment about whether they agree with Hudson’s appointment … Hudson said she has seen the negative comments in online articles about her appointment, including one that suggested she eats bats. Some others said her appointment will make SU look unattractive to potential students. But that was to be expected, Hudson said.”

Eats bats? Really? As the article points out, it’s still early days, and we have no idea how well Hudson will perform in her role, or if she’ll encounter any real resistance to her chaplaincy. What is important at this stage is that the needs of Pagan students are being acknowledged and respected, and that feedback from that community has been positive.

Covering the Vodou Attack in Haiti: Mollie at Get Religion takes a look at coverage of the recent attack on Vodouisants by evangelical Christians in Haiti, and its aftermath, and finds it wanting.

“I find it fascinating that the first article begins with a call to war by Beauvoir while the second article has him saying he hopes it doesn’t come to war. I’m not saying that both quotes aren’t accurate but it kind of reminds you how much power a reporter has in shaping a story.”

Mollie kindly quotes me on the subject of Vodou leader Max Beauvoir, and in the comments I elaborate my feelings on his leadership, and the need for journalists to approach decentralized minority faiths differently from the dominant monotheisms they are used to.

“The frustrating thing is that we have no real way of telling exactly how important or influential Beauvoir is among Vodou practitioners in Haiti. There’s a number of reasons for this, an important one being the lack of probing and analysis that followed after Beauvoir was first put forward as the “supreme chief” of Haitian Vodou (and, as Mollie mentioned, was called a “pope”).

However, two things are clear that all journalists covering Vodou in Haiti should know. One is that Vodou is, by its nature, a decentralized faith. It is largely organized around different “families” of initiates. No matter how large Beauvoir’s coalition may be, he simply cannot speak for the entirety of Haitian Vodou. The second is that thanks to the reporting so far, Beauvoir’s title has become prophecy. His willingness to interact with the press, to become the spokesman, has cemented his place as the go-to person for the “Vodou voice”. No doubt many families will rally to him in these uncertain times, and he may very well become, for a time, something close to the central figure the press portrays him as.

The lesson here is that journalistic assumptions about religion can shape religions, especially in times of crisis and trouble. Reporters like having a singular go-to leader when discussing a faith, it makes info-gathering and quote-seeking far easier. But minority faiths are very often different from the Protestant denominations or Catholic churches they are used to covering, and they often lack a clear leadership structure (or they have a clear leadership structure, but not one that applies across the board). The best policy is to always seek out multiple voices when dealing with a decentralized faith, and to always take claims of supremacy within a decentralized faith with a grain of salt.”

We all need to do a better job of covering religion in Haiti. Trying to assemble a clear picture from the assorted claims, incidents, and reports is difficult, and we run the risk of giving an incorrect, or even harmful, analysis of current events. If I error, and I probably will considering the trickle of good information, I hope it’s in favor of preserving and respecting Haiti’s indigenous faith traditions.

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

Top Story: While traditional media outlets continue to cut back on their coverage of religion, there’s been a slow expansion on the Internet. Beliefnet, one of the first Internet religion-news hubs, continues to reign supreme in terms of size and traffic, but it’s starting to see some competition from sites like Patheos and the Newsweek/Washington Post-supported On Faith. Now, another new-media contender is entering the God(s)-beat, as the left-leaning Huffington Post launches a religion section.

Site founder Arianna Huffington explains:

“Like all our sections, HuffPost Religion will bring you the latest news — in this case about all things religion-related — served up in the HuffPost style. It will also be home to an open and fearless dialogue about all the ways religion affects both our personal and our public lives. And it will do so in a way that moves beyond the pigeonhole depictions of both the faithful and the agnostic we see so frequently — and also beyond the tired assumption that God is a card-carrying member of one political party or another.

HuffPost Religion is being edited by Paul Raushenbush, an Associate Dean of Religious Life at Princeton University and an ordained Baptist minister. As a passionate and brilliant religious thinker, pastor, writer and college dean, Paul is ideally suited to the challenge of presenting multiple viewpoints and insights, as well as the real-world implications of religion for American life.”

Some of the big-name contributors include Jim Wallis, Deepak Chopra, Sister Joan Chittister, and Eboo Patel. But will HuffPost Religion cover modern Paganism? I’ve received some initial signs from folks working there that they are looking to add Pagan voices to the section, so we’ll see how things play out in the weeks ahead. Patheos, Beliefnet, and On Faith all now include a Pagan perspective (to varying degrees), so I can’t imagine HuffPost Religion will be far behind (especially since they have Pagans writing for them in other sections). I’ll keep you posted on developments.

In Other News:

An Earth-Based Discussion: Thorn Coyle has posted the audio from a panel discussion she led at this year’s Pantheacon on the question: “Earth-Based: Are We Really?”

“Organized by T. Thorn Coyle, this panel features Weiser authors T. Thorn Coyle, Diana Paxson, Zee Budapest, Orion Foxwood, and Lon Milo DuQuette. Discussion spans our definitions of ourselves as Earth- based, Nature-Based, Cosmos-based, etc. and addresses some of the problems of our times as well as positive media influences such as the movie Avatar.”

I briefly covered (and live-tweeted) this panel in my Pantheacon coverage, so I’m glad to see the audio for it released. While the panel didn’t really dig too deep into the question of how “earth-based” modern Pagan traditions really are, there were some fascinating and insightful things said and discussed, and I highly recommend checking it out.

The Fake Child Sacrifices: Earlier this year I noted the story of Ugandan anti-human-sacrifice campaigner Polino Angela, who claimed to have personally killed several children, including his own son. At the time I was deeply skeptical of his claims, seeing them as a strong echo of similar stories peddled by various ex-Satanists and Witches in America. Nor was I the only one to wonder if Angela was fabricating the story, and if he wasn’t, why he wasn’t in custody for his crimes. Now the house of cards has come tumbling down, as he’s been arrested for lying to a public officer.

“He allegedly repeated his claims to a Ugandan police officer and has been charged with “giving false information to a public officer”. He denied the charges and was remanded in custody in Lira Central Prison. Police officer Godwin Tumugumye, an officer at Lira Police Station, said BBC correspondent Tim Whewell is also wanted by the police over the case, reports Uganda’s New Vision newspaper.”

In another report, it’s come out that Angela was paid 200,000 Uganda shillings to play up child sacrifice, and has now confessed to lying.  If only we could do the same to some of the professional “ex”-workers in America. As I said in my initial post on this story, it isn’t that I don’t believe children aren’t being abducted, abused, and killed in several African nations. There’s of plenty of evidence for that. I also acknowledge that some witch-doctors are indeed killing and mutilating certain children for various reasons. But the lurid portrait painted by the BBC, with help from Mr. Angela, raised many of my old “Satanic Panic” red flags (most notably the idea of a centralized sacrifice industry/conspiracy). I’m glad that the truth has come to light in this story.

Max Beauvoir Declares War: After Tuesday’s incident in Haiti, where a mob of Christians drove off a small group of Vodouisants performing a ceremony for the dead, Vodou leader Max Beauvoir says it’s war.

“It will be war, open war,” Max Beauvoir, supreme head of Haitian voodoo, said at his home and temple outside the capital. “It’s unfortunate that at this moment where everybody’s suffering that they have to go to war. But if that is what they need, I think that is what they’ll get.”

You can see a photo essay of the inciting incident, here (thanks to Jennifer for the link). Since the clash of religions, Haitian officials have ensured that Vodou practitioners will be able to perform ceremonies at Cité Soleil in the future, but that seems cold comfort to those who were driven away with stones. However, not everyone in Haiti is seeing a religious war in the future, Mambos Elsie Théanou Joseph and Silviana Désir are busy working to feed and shelter the homeless, while Catholic priest Rev. Frantz-Michel Grandoit sees a new unity developing between Christians and Vodouisants.

“Humanity doesn’t want us to be separated,” said the Rev. Frantz-Michel Grandoit, a Catholic priest. Grandoit has planned several interfaith prayer vigils with Voodoo priests, including a three-day national prayer for rebuilding, held earlier this month and sponsored by the Global Network of Religions for Children, an international nongovernmental organization. In a ceremony at the Croix-des-Bouquets temple earlier this month, priestesses and parishioners knelt at the base of a tree trunk, lighted candles and solemnly chanted prayers for the earthquake’s victims and for the future of their country. “Hold Haiti’s sweet hand!” they sang as they threw water on the tree trunk and conjured up what is known as the Veve, a mystical symbol embodying the Voodoo deities. “Save us! Give us grace and deliverance!”

So while Max Beauvoir is an important voice right now in post-earthquake Haiti, we must remember, despite his claims, that Vodou has no “supreme chief” that all Vodouisants, Mambos, and Houngans bow before. Beauvoir leads a faction, a group of practitioners who have acknowledged him as their leader, and is not a Vodou “pope”. Reporters must move beyond Beauvoir, and talk to many practitioners from different areas to get a fuller picture of religious interactions in Haiti. To be sure there are those how want a religious war, but I would say there are also many who want a sense of national unity to trump theological differences at this critical stage.

The UK Reburial Issue: The BBC tackles the issue of reburying “pagan” remains, and interviews Druid priestess Emma Restall Orr, and representatives from Honouring the Ancient Dead, about the connection some modern Pagans feel to their pre-Christian ancestors.

“Pagan groups are increasingly asking for human remains and grave goods from pre-Christian burials to be returned to the ground, and their voices are being taken increasingly seriously in the museum world.”

As I’ve said before on this site, there is no consensus among British Pagans on this issue, with many, most notably Pagans for Archeology, opposed to the reburial of ancient human remains. It would have been nice for the BBC to get more perspectives on this, rather than simply portraying HAD and Orr as representative of Pagan stances on this issue.

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

Top Story: The Associated Press reports that a mob of Haitian Christians threw rocks and drove out a small group of Vodou practitioners who were trying to perform a ritual for the dead.

“Voodooists gathered in Cite Soleil where thousands of quake survivors live in tents and depend on food aid. Praying and singing, the group was trying to conjure spirits to guide lost souls when a crowd of Evangelicals started shouting. Some threw rocks while others urinated on Voodoo symbols. When police left, the crowd destroyed the altars and Voodoo offerings of food and rum.”

A member of the anti-Vodou mob claimed the Vodouisants “came and took over” while they were preparing for prayer, drawing the ire of the tent-city inhabitants. This latest incident seems to only highlight the increasing religious tensions in Haiti as several Christian missionary groups see an opportunity to expand and evangelize. Some Christian aid groups are allegedly using baptism certificates as identity papers for the purpose of distributing food.

“People see rice being distributed in front of churches and those homeless now needing papers are being offered baptism certificates that can act as identity documents,” Voodoo priest Max Beauvoir told The Associated Press before speaking at Friday’s service. “The horrible thing though is that by rejecting Voodoo these people are rejecting their ancestors and history. Voodoo is the soul of the Haitian people. Without it, the people are lost.”

There is a very real chance that post-earthquake Haiti could see a massive, and unreported, crack-down on Vodou in the weeks and months to come. Further threatening an already misunderstood and demonized faith. Leaving us with the question of what ideology will guide the hand that rebuilds Haiti? We can only hope that Max Beauvoir and other emerging Haitian Vodou voices can keep the international community aware of Haiti’s native faith.

In Other News:

The Rise and Fall of Bill Schnoebelen: I recently mentioned professional ex-Witch/Satanist/Mormon/Mason/Vampire Bill Schnoebelen in the context of a Christianity Today article looking at the popularity of vampires. Now, author and ritual magician Frater Barrabbas, who actually worked with Schnoebelen for several years while he was still a Witch, is reprinting a long essay about his experiences in several parts on his blog.

“Bill proceeded to involve the whole coven in his personal magick and his personal pathos, seeing himself as the ultimate authority in all situations, and perhaps this is where things went wrong. However, we did not indulge in child pornography, rape, murder, larceny, kidnaping, torture, animal sacrifice, blood drinking, and shooting up strange evil drugs. Bill claims that this is what witches do, that he whole-heartedly participated in them, and it’s possible that he did indulge in some of the milder of these practices. Yet the more outrageous were realized exclusively within the confines of his imagination.”

This may be the definitive behind-the-scenes look at the man who would eventually pen  “Wicca: Satan’s Little White Lie“. I recommend that everyone read through the posts, and subscribe to Frater Barrabbas’ intelligent and well-written blog. On the same subject, I’d also urge you to check out John Morehead’s criticisms of using Schnoebelen as a source from a Christian perspective.

Don’t Mess With Heathens in Iceland: The Iceland Review reports on an act of sorcery against Iceland’s enemies, and high chieftain Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson (a friend of both Bjork and Sigur Ros) claims that the working is, well, working.

“An act of sorcery against “Iceland’s enemies,” undertaken by members of the pagan society Ásatrúarfélagid in Iceland at the beginning of the economic crisis, finally seems to be delivering the desired results, as high chieftain Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson pointed out on the news yesterday—the Dutch government has collapsed and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s political career is hanging by a thread.”

You can read more about the initial ritual, here. The moral of this story? Don’t mess with the Asatru in Iceland, unless you want your economy to crumble and your politicians to falter. At least they didn’t call for a blight on their lands.

Johnny Depp & The WM3: Superstar actor Johnny Depp is diving head-first into advocacy on behalf of the West Memphis 3, the actor will appear on CBS’s ’48 Hours to call for their release. The case, in which three teens were convicted of murdering three children, has long drawn criticism for using “Satanic Panic” to gain convictions.

“Depp is not alone in his belief that the men were convicted on flimsy or fabricated evidence. He joins stars like Eddie Vedder, Winona Ryder, the Dixie Chicks and Disney teen star Demi Lovato in insisting the men were actually found guilty for their fascination with heavy-metal music, Stephen King and the occult. “I firmly believe Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley are totally innocent. It was a need for swift justice to placate the community,” Depp says on Saturday’s show.”

Momentum has long been building for something to be done in this case, not only among actors and activists, but by many legal organizations as well. With Damien Echols on death row, and legal appeals running out, one can only hope that real justice emerges before it’s too late.

Telling the Story of the Pendle Witches: The Lancashire Telegraph spotlights author Mary Sharratt, who’s forthcoming historical novel, “Daughters of the Witching Hill”, tells the story of the infamous Pendle witches.

“Set during the infamous witch trials of 1612, which took place at Lancaster Assizes, the novel features the people involved and according to Mary, a large amount of her research involved scrutinising the transcript recorded by Thomas Potts, a clerk at the court.”

You can read more about the book, and why she wrote it, here. I’ve received an advance copy of the book, and I can heartily recommend it. I’ll be featuring an interview with Sharratt at The Wild Hunt in April as part of her promotional tour for the novel. So keep an eye out for that!

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

Top Story: We start with the ongoing James Arthur Ray controversy. The “Secret”-selling guru was arrested and charged with three counts of manslaughter last week, this came in the wake of a long investigation into the deaths of three participants at a “spiritual warrior” sweat lodge ceremony led by Ray in October. Now, after Ray’s lawyer appeared on Larry King (a fan of Ray and “The Secret”), the prosecution is seeking a gag-order on further press appearances. The idea is to stop Ray’s supporters from using the bully pulpit of popular media to pollute possible jury pools, but the Don’t Pay To Pray blog points out that this will also restrict all information about the trial from the public (including damning interviews with sweat-lodge participants).

“After James Arthur Ray’s attorneys plastered their faces all over the media, on Good Morning America and Larry King Live, in a transparent attempt to influence a potential jury, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, has requested a “gag order” hearing. A gag order is a judge’s order prohibiting the attorneys and the parties to a pending lawsuit or criminal prosecution from talking to the media or the public about the case. The intent is usually to prevent prejudice due to pre-trial publicity which would influence potential jurors. Based on the “freedom of the press” provision of the First Amendment, the court cannot constitutionally restrict the media from printing or broadcasting information about the case. The prosecutor’s tool to stop a case from being tried in the press is a gag order on the participants under the court’s control. While the Gag Order would stop James Ray’s attorney’s from trying the case in the media, it would also stop the public from having access to any information from Yavapai county staff regarding any aspect of this case with the exception of the scheduling of hearings.”

Don’t Pay To Pray is also concerned that a jury trial in Sedona would result in “a jury composed of several people who conduct the same type of plastic sweat lodges that Ray did.” These concerns are echoed by Johnny P. Flynn, a Potawatomi Indian and  faculty member in the Department of Religious Studies at IUPUI, who says that Native religion will end up being put on trial by various non-Native “experts”.

“I am not a psychic or an attorney, but my experiences through the years with American Indian religious issues tell me this: even though James Ray will be sitting at the defense table, it will be our religious practices on trial in that courtroom. And it will be experts who will argue both sides of the case … In following the Ray story over the past few months, I am amazed at the number of non-Indian sweat lodge experts the media has been able to locate. Few Indians if any have been interviewed … James Ray’s defense might be compelled to bring in experts to argue that he did the ceremony the right way—and to insist that occasional and “unforeseen” death is one of the by-products of American Indian religious practices … The prosecution would then be compelled to bring in their “experts” to argue that a non-Indian, who allegedly learned to do this ceremony from “shamans” all over the world, did the sweat lodge the wrong way. Ray would be guilty of manslaughter by way of “malpractice” even if he is an “expert” on the sweat lodge.”

For the moment, Ray still sits in jail, while his lawyers appeal the 5 million dollar bail, and lawyers on both sides position themselves for the coming trial. If the gag order goes through, news on this issue could dry up until the trial starts. But I suspect there will still be plenty to talk about, like the James Ray true believers who are organizing prayer conference calls on his behalf, or the Native American (and guru-debunking) activists who are using services like Twitter to network and share information. It still remains to be see what reverberations will be felt in the larger New Age community, or if it will be business as usual after a short period of making noises about “accountability”. You can bet I’ll continue to keep you posted as things develop.

In Other News:

Stonehenge’s Modernist Box: Britain’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment is protesting the approved design for Stonehenge’s new visitor center, saying it would detract from the landmark, and that the new “twee” footpaths are more appropriate for an “urban garden”.

“We question whether, in this landscape of scale and huge horizons and with a very robust end point that has stood for centuries and centuries, this is the right design approach?” said Diane Haigh, CABE’s director of design review. “You need to feel you are approaching Stonehenge. You want the sense you are walking over Salisbury Plain towards the stones.”

This is quickly becoming a big issue for Britain. The new center was supposed to be a compromise on the scrapped plans to build a tunnel that would reroute traffic away from the site. With the looming influx of Olympics visitors, pressure is mounting to get the site ready for the spotlight. It remains to be seen if CABE’s objections will now slow that process down. You can see a concept photo of the proposed center, here.

Kupala not Valentine: A right-wing nationalist Polish group called Niklot (named after a famous Slavic pagan) is protesting the celebration of Valentine’s Day, saying that Slavic Poles should celebrate Kupala Day instead.

“Niklot claims that Poles should observe the Kupala Day, a Slavic fertility holiday traditionally celebrated on 23-24 June. On Kupala Day young men would jump over the flames of bonfires and girls would float wreaths of flowers often lit with candles on rivers, attempting to gain foresight into their relationship fortunes from the flow patterns of the flowers on the river.”

You can read more about Kupala and Kupala Day at Wikipedia. The Helsinki Federation for Human Rights is calling for city officials to oppose the group, who have been putting up posters that say “F**k Off Valentines”, claiming Niklot promotes racism and fascism. Niklot spokesman Ireneusz Woszczyk disputes these claims, saying the group is only interested in tradition. Could one of our experts on Slavic Paganism weigh in on this? Is this group extremist? Or are they misunderstood reconstructionists?

Haitian Vodou Leaders Lend the UN a Hand: United Nations officials in Haiti are asking for help from the estimated 60,000 voodoo priests and priestesses in that country to perform a census of the dead and injured.

“…in postquake Haiti, the practitioners of voodoo have taken on a more practical role, enlisted by the government to help count the dead, tend to the injured, and soothe the psychologically damaged. “One must understand that Haiti is voodoo,’’ said Max Beauvoir, 75, the “pope’’ of Haitian voodoo and a former biochemical engineer who once worked for Digital Equipment in Maynard, Mass. “Helping Haitians is nothing else but helping ourselves.’’ To make use of that resource, the United Nations has reached out to the vast and influential network of about 60,000 voodoo priests in Haiti, Beauvoir said. And the priests, firmly entrenched in their displaced communities, are eager to lend a hand.”

The article also interviews Vodou “pope” Max Beauvoir, and discusses how Haiti’s Houngans and Mambos are helping a traumatized nation regain its footing. Whatever the future may hold for Haiti, it seems very likely that Vodou will be an ongoing and important part of that future.

The Wicker Tree: In a final note, director Robin Hardy’s long-awaited sequel/re-imagining of 1973 cult-classic “The Wicker Man”, “The Wicker Tree”, finally has its own web site!

Looks nice! No word on a release date other than “2010”, but you can sign up for updates. For all of my previous coverage of “The Wicker Tree”, click here.

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