Archives For Palo

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.

idle

  • Climate Progress reports on efforts by an alliance of Native American nations, activists, and environmental groups, to stop the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline through Lakota land. Quote: “In the wake of the State Department’s Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statementfor the Keystone XL pipeline which sparked nearly 300 protest vigils across the country, a group of Native American communities have added their voices to the calls to reject Keystone XL. In a joint statement — No Keystone XL pipeline will cross Lakota lands — Honor the Earth, the Oglala Sioux Nation, Owe Aku, and Protect the Sacred announced their intention to peacefully resist the construction of the pipeline slated to cut through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska.” You can read the full statement, here.
  • Amnesty International has released a statement saying “after 38 years time to release indigenous leader Leonard Peltier.” Quote: “It is time for the USA authorities to release Leonard Peltier, an Anishinabe-Lakota Native American and leading member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who has been imprisoned for 38 years despite serious concerns about the fairness of proceedings leading to his conviction. Leonard Peltier was arrested 38 years ago today in connection with the murders of two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, during a confrontation involving AIM members on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in June 1975. While he admits to having been present during the incident, Leonard Peltier, who in 1977 was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for the murders, has always denied killing the agents as alleged by the prosecution at his trial.”
  • A woman charged with the sexual abuse of children allegedly tried to silence victims by saying she was a witch, and that she would utilize spells against them if they talked. Quote: “Shocking is perhaps the best word to describe the allegations against Jessica Smith. But perhaps it also best describes her self-proclaimed job title. ”Ms. Smith led the children to believe that she was a witch, a practicing witch. [She]would place hexes or spells on the children if they revealed any of the facts that had happened,” Richmond said. “Of course, these children are young and they believed her. As if what [the victims] witnessed at that point wasn’t enough, now they think someone is going to cast a spell on them.” There’s no confirmation of whether she actually adhered to some form of religious witchcraft, or if it was merely a ruse.
  • “Conscience” laws are redundant, and largely politically motivated, and even lawmakers in South Dakota realize that. Quote: “As Americans United has pointed out several times, the First Amendment already protects members of clergy from being compelled to officiate at marriage ceremonies. Why can’t a same-sex couple demand a church wedding? For the same reason that a Protestant couple can’t just walk into a Roman Catholic church and demand that the priest marry them. Members of the clergy have an absolute right to determine the parameters for the sacraments they offer. If a couple doesn’t meet those criteria, the pastor is free to show them the door.”
  • Religion Clause reports that a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling in State v. Armitage says Native Hawaiians are not infringed on by making them obtain a permit to enter an island reserve. Quote: “The Hawaii Supreme Court held that the rights of Native Hawaiians are not infringed by a statute limiting entry into the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve only to those who obtain authorization to do so through a written application process.  Defendants claim they were traveling to the island to proclaim the right of the “Reinstated Kingdom of Hawaii” to the island. The court rejected defendants’ arguments that their entry was protected by the Art. XII, Sec. 7 of the Hawaii Constitution which protects the right to engage in traditional and customary Native Hawaiian subsistence, cultural and religious practices.”
A young man wears a blindfold in an initiation ritual. (Jan Sochor – GlobalPost)

A young man wears a blindfold in an initiation ritual. (Jan Sochor – GlobalPost)

  • Global Post has a photoset up focusing on Palo in Cuba. Quote: “The cultures of Cuba’s many African descendants run deep across the island. They blend with the country’s traditional Roman Catholic practices to create vibrant mixtures. Photographer Jan Sochor captures the ritual scenes here in Santiago de Cuba and Havana, in particular capturing Palo rituals. A religious practice often confused with Yoruba religion (Santeria), but distinguished by more underground practices and initiations.”
  • Is cultural Christianity dead? That’s what  R. Albert Mohler Jr., President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary asserts. Quote: “There was in the center of the country — and I don’t mean that geographically, but culturally — a cultural religiosity that was, in the main, a cultural Christianity that trended in one direction for the better part of 60 to 70 years, and it had a kind of moral authority that is disappearing before our eyes.” 
  • Don’t be a jerk, don’t deface ancient rock formations. Quote: “Prosecutors have filed charges against two former Boy Scout leaders accused of toppling one of the ancient rock formations at Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park. State Parks officials say Glenn Taylor is charged with criminal mischief. David Hall is charged with aiding criminal mischief, another felony.”
  • Early Americans really didn’t like the Quakers much. Quote: “Known today for their pacifist and quietist ways, Quakers had an altogether different reputation in the seventeenth century: belligerent and boisterous rabble-rousers. Fueled by evangelical zeal, and asserting radical ideas for the time, the Quakers were aggressive proselytizers. As a result, they faced violent persecution in England and, to a lesser extent, in the Netherlands, where many migrated. News of their beliefs (e.g. equality for women, refusal to swear oaths, etc.) and their tactics (e.g. preaching loudly and publicly, disrupting worship services, etc.) reached the colonies before the Quakers did. Connecticut, in fact, banned Quakers in October 1656—prior to any Quakers having ever reached the colony.”
  • What’s it like being a Pagan at Penn? Pretty lonely, it seems. Quote: “Deidre Marsh, a College senior, founded Penn Wheel a semester ago in order to build a community for earth-based religions and paganism. But even in a school of over 10,000 undergraduates, Marsh has been unable to find anyone else who shares her religious beliefs.”

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.

Unleash the Hounds is one of my longest running, and popular, features at The Wild Hunt. It is, in essence, a link roundup. A place where I find stories in the mainstream media concerning Paganism, occult practices, indigenous religions, and other topics of interest to our interconnected communities. The birth of this series came out of necessity, as more stuff is being written now than I could possible write about in-depth week-to-week. If you enjoy this feature, please take some time to make a donation to our Fall Funding Drive, so we can continue to bring you this, and other features, for another year. Thank you to everyone who has helped us raise over $8000 dollars in less than two weeks, we now have less than $2000 dollars to go, so help us bring this year’s drive to a close! Now, on to the links!

Papa Legba veve' design being removed from the Manhattan American Apparel shop window.

Papa Legba veve’ design being removed from the Manhattan American Apparel shop window.

  • At Ebony Magazine, curator Shantrelle P. Lewis writes an editorial that argues against the appropriation of Vodou, particularly into American Halloween imagery and traditions. Quote: “Vodou, which has come to be known as ‘Voodoo,’ has been bastardized in popular culture and subsequently demonized within Black communities throughout the African Diaspora. If you visit New Orleans, every other tourist shop in the French Quarter is fully stocked with so-called “authentic” Voodoos dolls meant to seek revenge on one’s enemies. This commercialized Voodoo is one of many grossly inaccurate faces of one of Africa’s most ancient traditions thanks to ridiculous stereotypes created first by French planters who escaped alive from the revolutionary uprising that took place on Saint Domingue in the late 18th century and later, sensationalized accounts of travelers to Haiti in the 20th century.” This editorial was spurred by the Manhattan American Apparel shop using a large vevé for Papa Legba in it’s Halloween display, and commenters note that Karla N. Moore, Founder of Our Folklore Community Institute, led the successful initiative to have the display removed.
  • An Episcopal Priest writes about religion at Burning Man for The Huffington Post. Quote: “I regard Burning Man as one of the largest religious rituals in the western world. We danced, created and destroyed things together. We talked, cried, yelled and sat in silence. We came to the holy desert from wildly different places, but even in our ecstasy and despair, mostly we were one — like the future city that John of Patmos calls the New Jerusalem. Burners greet each other with hospitality saying, ‘Welcome home!’ For me this means, ‘express your wonderful uniqueness, because we act as a kind of family for each other.’ I talked about God with Vedic priestesses, Unitarians, yogis, Quakers, entheogen voyagers, Episcopalians, Hindus, Roman Catholics, shamans, atheists and Zen teachers.” The priest, Reverend Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young, said that “Christians should do more to make visible the temporary holiness that unites us.”
  • Sacred Tribes Journal’s Fall 2013 issues is out, and it is “devoted to an exploration of the ethics of evangelism.” Quote: “This is one of the best issues we’ve done, addressing a neglected topic from multiple perspectives, including an Evangelical exposition of the subject, a critique by a Hindu writer, responses by two Evangelicals, a review of Elmer Thiessen’s The Ethics of Evangelism, and an excerpt of Myron Penner’s The End of Apologetics with consideration of the politics and violence of apologetics in certain contexts.” You can read this issue on your Kindle for only 99 cents.
  • “Secular humanism is a pagan god …. blah, blah, blah …. we are living in a pagan society …. blah, blah blah.” More of the same-old, same-old from Christian hater John Hagee. Want more of this brain-dead madness? Here you go. Enjoy. More? Fine, here’s the House stenographer rattling on about “Freemasons.”
  • Meanwhile, the Washington Post looks at the trend of public schools slowly backing away from Halloween due to Christian parents’ belief that it’s a Pagan/demonic holiday. Quote: “True, some images and symbols associated with ‘trick or treat’ can be traced to ancient pagan and other religious practices. But Halloween in America has been so thoroughly secularized that no court in the land is likely to view school Halloween parties as an establishment of religion. What’s actually pushing public schools to re-think Halloween is the recognition that growing numbers of Christian, Muslim and other religious parents are opting their kids out of Halloween celebrations at school. A judge may not see Halloween as ‘religious,’ but many parents see activities involving images of witches, demons and ghosts as offensive to their faith.” In what can only be considered deep irony, the replacement “harvest festivals” are in some ways far more Pagan than the very secular Halloween traditions.
Insert joke here.

Insert joke here.

  • Here is the most fluffy bunny in the world. You’re welcome. Use this image wisely.
  • In a New York Times editorial, T.M. Luhrmann ponders the process of “conjuring up our own gods.” Quote: “Experiencing an invisible companion as truly present — especially as an adult — takes work: constant concentration, a state that resembles prayer [...] Secular liberals sometimes take evolutionary psychology to mean that believing in God is the lazy option. But many churchgoers will tell you that keeping God real is what’s hard.”
  • Nobody wants to go to (Christian) church anymore! One reason? Pluralism. Quote: “Speaking of competition, there is a fifth trend impacting the decline of the church in America. People have more choices today. Credit this to the social changes in the ’60s, to the Internet, to the influx of immigrants and minorities, to whatever you’d like, but the fact is, people today meet other people today of entirely different faith traditions and, if they are discovering anything at all, it is that there are scores of people who live as much, if not more, like Christ than many of the Christians they used to sit beside in church. The diversity of this nation is only going to expand.” Don’t worry, though, most of the people who don’t go to church still have spiritual beliefs (just ask any Pagan).
  • The Miami NewTimes interviews a Palo practitioner about his faith, and tries to correct misconceptions about the tradition. Quote: “He insists Palo is part of a beautiful, rich tradition that can be used to heal. Violence, however, is never advocated. There is still a fight for recognition and visibility, though. ‘There are still many people afraid to say this is what they practice, this is what they believe,’ he says. ‘Paleros are everywhere, but they’re just afraid to come out into the light.’”
  • Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber explains why getting her Pagan goddess tattoo inked over by a Christian design isn’t a cover-up. Quote: “I didn’t see it as a cover-up of the Snake Goddess as much as a layering of my story. My tattoos create a colorful confession of my journey to the cranky, beautiful faith I hold today.” Meanwhile, Pagans continue to strip away the Christian layers to find the goddesses.
  • The new season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, a program I know nothing about, features a Wiccan. Quote: “I’m considered a sole practitioner. I am Celtic as far as my ancestry is concerned. My grandmother was a pagan but she also practiced witchcraft, which is what I do. So, if you’re going to put a word on it, I would be considered a Celtic pagan witch. But I’m a sole practitioner; I don’t belong to a coven, which is a group of people that believe in the same things.”

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. Don’t forget, make a donation to our Fall Funding Drive so The Wild Hunt can run for another year!

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.

Angel Silva. Photo by Dave Sanders for The New York Times.

Angel Silva. Photo by Dave Sanders for The New York Times.

  • The New York Times profiles Angel Silva, a practitioner of Palo Mayombe, who’s in a legal showdown over whether the healing crystals he sells on the street in Union Square are works of art, or if he’s simply vending without a license (as local police believe). Quote: “Mr. Silva insists he needs no city permit because his stones are artistic sculptures covered under the First Amendment, and he hopes to convince a judge of this in Manhattan Criminal Court at a trial next month. Lines of customers form on Mondays, when Mr. Silva offers free spiritual healing. He delivers his psychic readings of their life issues, from cheating spouses to chakra imbalances, and he treats some people at the nearby sidewalk tree, to better connect to the gods of the forest.” What’s refreshing about the story is that it steers clear of some of the sensationalism usually accompanied with reporting on Palo. For a perspective of a Pagan who moved into the practice and religion of Palo, check out the columns Stacey Lawless contributed to The Wild Hunt.
  • Back in June I spotlighted “America Bewitched: Witchcraft After Salem” by Owen Davies, which debunks the popular notion that we stopped killing and persecuting “witches” after 1692, and shows that belief in witchcraft persisted throughout this country into the 20th century (and beyond). Now, appropriately enough, The Salem News interviews Davies about the book. Quote: “Witchcraft beliefs and the persecution of supposed witches during the Salem trials era and beyond seem like another world, aspects of another time unconnected with ours, but they are not. At the heart of witchcraft accusations are fundamental fears, misfortunes, insecurities, uncertainties and personal experiences that people in America experience today.”
  • The Sault Star profiles the Wild Ginger WitchCamp in Ontario, and finds that people from “all walks of life” are in attendance. Quote: “Forget your Halloween and fairy-tale images of witches. The people gathered at Unicamp for the weekend are therapists, teachers, artists and students, nurses and midwives, computer programmers, parents and grandparents. Here there are no voodoo dolls, black magic spells, curses or consorting with the devil. The only bubbling cauldrons are in the kitchen, where Alta, who has cooked for Wild Ginger for years, works her own kind of sorcery, producing delicious meals for the seventy campers.” I think it is interesting that the mainstream press is finally starting to notice the international network of Witch Camps, a phenomenon that has quietly existed under the radar for some time, even within many corners of the Pagan community. 
  • At The Washington Post’s On Faith section, scholar Charles C. Haynes debunks the notion that the United States is a Christian nation. Quote: “Religious diversity at America’s founding made a necessity of religious freedom because no one group had the power or the numbers to impose its version of true faith – Christian or otherwise – on all others [...] Any attempt to establish a Christian nation, therefore, always has been and always will be unjust, dangerous and profoundly un-Christian.”
  • Poet Annie Finch writes about her mother, the Witch. Quote: “My mother Maggie, as she likes to be called, has referred to herself as a witch for a couple of decades now — at least since she was in her early 70s. That was around the time she started adding 8,000 years to the date: She would date her letters to me 9989 instead of 1989 and 9992 instead of 1992, to signal that she was reckoning time from the estimated beginning of Goddess worship. Nowadays, at 92 years young, she talks about the Goddess often, keeps an altar with a Goddess statue from Malta, and regularly wears a large pentacle around her neck.”
Alley Valkyrie being arrested last December. Photo: Kevin Clark/The Register-Guard

Alley Valkyrie being arrested last December. Photo: Kevin Clark/The Register-Guard

  • Last year I interviewed Feri initiate, activist, and Wild Hunt columnist, Alley Valkyrie after she was arrested protesting for the rights of the homeless in Eugene, Oregon. Now, the verdict is in, and Alley Valkyrie has been vindicated. Quote: “Lane County violated the constitutional rights of a local activist last year when it had her cited for trespassing following her refusal to leave a public plaza after officials closed it, a Eugene Municipal Court judge has ruled. In her decision, Judge Karen Stenard said the county’s reason for ejecting protesters and shutting the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza — that the area had to be cleaned because human feces were smelled in the area — was too broad and did not pass the rigorous test required for government actions that restrict constitutional freedoms. As a result, Stenard dismissed the charge of second-degree trespassing filed against protester Alley Valkyrie.” You’ll no doubt be hearing more about this from Alley personally, but for now you can read a recent column she wrote about her activism on behalf of the homeless in Eugene. Congratulations to Alley Valkyrie! 
  • American Horror Story’s new season, subtitled “Coven,” will deal with Salem Witches escaping to New Orleans, Vodou practitioners, a serial killer, and how oppressed minority groups will sometimes attack one another instead of their true enemy. Quote: “This season, Minear said, will focus on themes of oppression of minorities of all kinds. ‘Within that idea, the idea of minority groups going after each other and doing the work of the larger culture for the larger culture [will be explored],’ Minear said. ‘While there is a strong feminist theme that runs throughout Coven this year, there are also themes of race, oppression and there is a very strong theme of family, specifically mothers and daughters.’” I would like to ask the television gods for this to not suck, because it actually sounds kinda interesting. 
  • There are so many problematic elements to these teenage exorcists under the leadership of Satanic Panic bottom-feeder Bob Larson, and Slate.com ventures into just some of them. Quote: “What Duboc captures is troubling: Large groups of people come to these exorcism events, often because they are struggling with drug addiction or because they have long-term mental health problems, sometimes because they’ve been sexually abused. Larson and the girls blame all of these people’s problems on demonic possession, and proceed to play-act exorcisms on members of the audience.”More on this from Jezebel.
  • Famous paranormal radio host Art Bell is coming out of retirement to host a new show for Satellite radio company Sirius. Quote: “A Sirius representative contacted Bell through social media a few months ago, leading to the formation of his show, ‘Art Bell’s Dark Matter.’ He’ll talk about things like UFOs, ghosts, near-death experiences and weird aspects of science. He’ll do interviews and take calls from viewers. Scott Greenstein, Sirius XM president and chief content officer, said the show will be ‘uncensored, unrestricted, uncluttered and utterly unique.’” As someone who once worked a graveyard shift job, and heard Mr. Bell on the radio “back in the day,” expect lots of conspiracy theory, weird science, yeti calls, alien abduction stories, and Freemasonry allusions.  Oh, and he would bring Pagans on the show from time to time. 
  • The Huffington Post UK Student’s section features a story on Oberon Zell-Ravenheart’s Grey School of Wizardry. Quote: “As Headmaster, I cannot help but identify strongly with Albus in Harry Potter. He is so much like me that I have often been referred to as ‘the real-life Dumbledore’ and I was personally distraught upon reading the account of his death.”
  • Religion Dispatches asks: Why is the State Department opening an Office of “Religious Engagement”? Quote: “Constitutional or not, official interfacing with “faith-based organizations” will constitute a troubling form of government endorsement: the defining of some communities, among various porous-bordered normative and discursive communities, as “religions” and the anointing of some individuals as recognized spokespersons for those communities.”

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.

A Few Notes on Palo

Stacey Lawless —  May 24, 2013 — 9 Comments

Nsala malongo! I’ve been learning about Palo cosmology and history over the last couple of months, and slowly unraveling some of the confusion I had about how the religion works. I thought I would offer up some of what I’ve learned, detailing a little of our worldview and the fact that there are different denominations, or ramas, of Palo. (By the way: any mistakes here are entirely mine, while the goodness in this piece must be credited to my teachers.)

And without further ado . . .

The dead

The dead are the basis of everything in Palo.

We call them the bakulu, which means ancestors, but the concept of “ancestors” tends to make Americans think of family trees. “Bakulu” can (and does) refer to lineal ancestors, but the dead are so much more than that. They are the basis of all life. They are the stuff of the material world, and the sea of possibilities that configure and reconfigure the fates of the living.

Kongo cosmogram, showing the cyclical nature of human existence.

Kongo cosmogram, showing the cyclical nature of human existence. The horizontal line represents the boundary between the living and dead.

We do think about and work with individual dead people: named ancestors, spirit guides, the beloved dead uncle who always gave you good advice. Sometimes they come to us in dreams and intuitions; sometimes, if we’re fortunate, they come to us in possession and bless us with their healing and wisdom.

But we also think of the dead as an anonymous collective, a force, a field, a sea. The KiKongo word “Kalunga” means simultaneously the collective dead, the saltwater ocean, and the cemetery. To the people of the kingdom of Kongo in central Africa, whose traditions gave birth to what would become Palo, the land of the dead lay below the sea. The surface of the sea was the demarcation between the living and the dead, a site of creative tension and power. Graves, too, were points of contact, and dirt from a grave carried the power of the deceased person within. You can still find seashells left on graves in Black family cemeteries in the United States, a trace of the old philosophy.

The spirals of conch shells symbolize the cyclical nature of existence in Kongo thought: death is hardly an end, merely a transition to a new existence. The dead are being continually reborn, crystallizing into their lineal descendants, or appearing as trees, pools and stones, plants and animals. Everything in the material world is a form of the dead, precipitating out of Kalunga like grains of salt out of seawater, to exist for a while before being dissolved again.

Nzambi

The source of the living and the dead is Nzambi a mpungu. Nzambi is neither male nor female, and is the ever-present majestic force that brought creation into being and permeates it. In Palo we tend to think of Nzambi in these terms, as the creator, because the Kongo traditions in general have been in continuous dialogue with Christianity for centuries. But Nzambi can also be thought of as the first ancestor, emphasizing the continuous cycle of life and death. In that sense, creation just is, with no beginning and no end.

The mpungos

And then there are the mpungos. Mpungu is a KiKongo word that refers to power generated by something, or, as my Tata once put it, “a hot stove can have an mpungu.” So in essence, it’s just a force. However, some lines of Palo have developed certain of the mpungos into major powers, even to the extent of conceiving of them as divinities. The Internet is full of descriptions of the mpungos, who have names such as Chola Wengue, Siete Rayos, and Zarabanda, and the tendency is to syncretize them with the Orishas of Santería. Not all ramas (which are, essentially, Palo denominations) work with the mpungos in this way, however.

The Ramas of Palo

The way a rama regards mpungos and the dead seems to be one of the major distinctions between lines of Palo. (There are many other distinctions, but they have to do with ways of conducting ritual.) There are numerous ramas, but the three main ones are Mayombe, Briyumba, and Kimbisa.

Palo Mayombe is probably the oldest one. It works primarily with the ancestors of blood and spiritual lineage, and in the past, if you were not of Bantu descent, you could not be initiated into Mayombe houses. (“Bantu” refers to a group of related African languages, of which KiKongo is one, and by extension to the ethnic groups that spoke these languages.) Mayomberos tend to see the mpungos as natural forces only, not divinities, and to downplay them in Palo practice.

Palo Briyumba developed out of Palo Mayombe and broke away from Mayombe’s ancestral focus. Briyumberos began to initiate non-Bantus. They also developed pacts with dead spirits who had no blood or lineaged connection to the Paleros, putting them to work and in some cases effectively enslaving them. Briyumba came into its own during Cuba’s wars of independence, and saw justice in conscripting the bones and souls of deceased oppressors to serve those they had formerly abused. In Briyumba, the mpungos are used to give attributes and direction to the dead who serve the Briyumbero.

Kongolese crucifix

A Kongolese crucifix

Palo Kimbisa developed in Oriente, the eastern part of the island of Cuba, and has absorbed influences from several other traditions, including Haitian Vodou. (There is a long history of contact between Oriente and Haiti, which is only about forty miles away from the eastern tip of Cuba.) Some Kimbiseros make extensive use of Christian symbolism, and some work with the Catholic saints. One theory of Kimbisa’s origins is that they lie with Kimpa Vita’s Kongolese Christian reform movement, which blossomed in the kingdom of Kongo for a few years in the eighteenth century, before being brutally repressed. Kimpa Vita had thousands of followers, many of whom were subsequently sold into slavery in the Americas. It is an intriguing theory, but nobody knows for certain if it’s true.

It is Kimbisa that regards the mpungos as divinities, finding parallels between them and the Orishas, and focusing much of their work and veneration upon them, instead of upon the dead. The dead in Kimbisa are the medium that the mpungos use to affect the world.

 * * * * *

Dear readers, I hope you enjoyed this. When I was starting out on this path and trying to read everything I could find on Palo, I was very confused about who or what Paleros worked with, and what was up with all the crucifixes and Orisha comparisons and whatnot. If I can straighten a little of that out for other readers and seekers, that’s great. In fact, let me try this: if you have questions about Palo, bring them up in the comments section and I’ll try to answer them in my next post. (Just bear in mind that I’m new at this and there may be things I can’t answer due to ignorance or oath.) Malongo yaya!

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.

Captions from Young Avengers #2.

Captions from Young Avengers #2.

  • Last week, the comic book Young Avengers #2 had the conversation that many Pagan comic-book fans were awaiting: What’s up with Wiccan calling himself “Wiccan”? Here’s hoping it leads to a new code-name that isn’t also the name for a, well, Wiccan. The issue was written by Kieron Gillen with art by Jamie Mckelvie, the same team who did the criminally under-appreciated Phonogram miniseries (which should be required reading for anyone who loves the intersection of music and magic).
  • Some Charismatic Christians are worried that the practice of prophetic ministry might be crossing the line into “witchcraft” for some.  Quote: “When he released the words over me, it came with a spiritual force that made me feel as if I had been covered with goo. My eyes began burning. I felt like I was in a daze. It was spiritual witchcraft.” What’s interesting is that this piece gets close to admitting that a lot of charismatic practice is like magical energy work, and that it’s too easy to blur the boundaries. Now, if they’ll address spiritual warfare…
  • Are rooster heads found at a North Carolina cemetery ”Voodoo”? No one knows for certain, but let’s wildly speculate anyway. Quote: “Brandy Nunn told Fox Charlotte, ‘God only knows what they’re really doing with cutting heads off. What are they really messing with over there?’” I’m sure that no one will jump to conclusions over this.
  • Bleeding Cool covers a new witchcraft-themed comic book, “The Westwood Witches,” complete with human sacrifice and appearance by Baphomet. It’s a “horror” book, so take that as you will. Quote: “It’s not just about witchcraft but about beliefs, too. What seems real to us sounds like nonsense to others, and that’s the power of literature… and quackery. But overall, The Westwood Witches is a tale about neighborhood and neighbors. In this book, they’re beautiful, they’re kind, and they’re demon worshippers. You could say it’s like Desperate Housewives with macabre murderings”.
  • Indie art-rockers Yeah Yeah Yeahs have a new album coming out in April, and their lead single “Sacrilege” is influenced by “the New Orleans vibe. Just the juju in the air.”
  • It’s the collapse of mainline Protestent political power, and I feel fine. 
  • Religion in American Historyponders the reactions to Hinduism by U.S. President John Adams. Quote: “Adams consistently compares Hindu religion to Roman Catholicism in the margins, writing ‘Oh Priestcraft!’ and labeling Hindu practices as ‘ridiculous observances.’ When Priestley writes, “But the Hindoos go far beyond the rest of mankind in voluntary restrictions and mortifications,” Adams asks ‘Far beyond the Romish Christians?’ in the margin.”

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.

Today I’ll be away with the Faeries in Seattle (along with T. Thorn Coyle, Raven Grimassi, Stephanie Taylor- Grimassi, Lupa, and several other Pagan-friendly folk) but I didn’t want to leave you empty handed in my absence! So, since I’m at a convention, it seems appropriate that I share a panel from the convention I just participated in last weekend. So here’s a panel discussion from PantheaCon 2013 entitled “Setting the Record Straight: Pagans and the Press,” moderated by journalist Beth Winegarner, and featuring Eric Colon (a Mayombero and Santero), Mike Aldax (crime reporter for the San Francisco Examiner), Nagasiva Yronwode (a Satanist), and myself.

Setting the Record Straight panel at PantheaCon 2013.

Setting the Record Straight panel at PantheaCon 2013. Photo: Greg Harder

“Most reporters aren’t experts in Paganism, Satanism, or African Diaspora faiths. When these topics come up, especially in connection with violent crime, news articles often suggest that these religions are violent. In this panel, experts from a variety of faiths will discuss how their beliefs have been misrepresented or sensationalized, a local crime reporter will share how he does his job, and we’ll come up with strategies for Pagans and the press to work together.”

I think it’s a thought-provoking a useful panel, especially considering recent events in the mainstream media. I don’t have a transcript of the talk yet, but I’m looking into seeing how quickly I can have one made. In the meantime, feel free to download it and listen at your convenience.

That’s all I have for now, I hope to bring you more material from PantheaCon 2013 soon, and some images and interviews from this weekend’s FaerieCon West. Have a great day!

In the past decade I’ve noticed a rapid increase in the number of modern Pagans who have taken initiations in African diasporic religions like Santeria, Vodou, and Palo Mayombe. Likewise, a growing number of elders and teachers in those traditions have started to attend Pagan events like PantheaCon in San Jose, California. I’ve long been interested in the shared struggles our faiths face, and find the increasing interactions a fascinating and under-studied phenomenon. What will this growing trend mean both for modern Pagan religions and for the African diasporic faiths?

To address some of these questions I’ve interviewed Stacey Lawless (Ngueyo Ndumba Kunayanda), who lives in the Southeastern United States where she is currently reinventing herself. A Pagan for most of her life, she is also an aborisha in Santería and an engueyo in Palo Mayombe. She writes, draws, paints, and has recently started a blog. Stacey is in the process of finishing a Master’s degree in American History and is considering a move to the West Coast. In addition, she wil be starting a monthly column here at The Wild Hunt about her journey into Palo Mayombe.

Palo Mayombe working altar photo by Osvaldo Sesti, 2010.

Palo Mayombe working altar photo by Osvaldo Sesti, 2010.

Let’s start with your religious background, how did you come to modern Paganism, and was there anything from that time that presaged your interest in Palo?

Oh hell. I kind of hate talking about my background in Paganism, because I essentially spent two decades trying to figure out what I was doing. I wish I’d been deeply rooted in something cool and become super-competent in life and magic, but nope. I came to it in high school through a love of nature, plus a love of folklore and the occult, but mostly I read a lot of books and made art on Pagan themes. I did dabble in a few traditions, especially Asatru, but nothing ever clicked for me. I was so hungry for something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was for way too many years.

Asatru did, in a way, foreshadow Palo for me. Something about the runes and the lesser spirits – the disir and huldre, especially – were close enough to whatever it was I was searching for that I kept trying to convince myself I was on the right track, even when I didn’t actually practice the religion any more. I probably drove all my Heathen friends nuts over the last few years as I just couldn’t quite let go . . .

Renee Stout - Eyes of Legba (monoprint) 2002

Renee Stout – Eyes of Legba (monoprint) 2002

What started you on your path to Palo? Was it a gradual process? Did it emerge from a dissatisfaction with what modern Pagan religions had to offer you?

Art started me on this path. I walked into an exhibition called “Dear Robert, I’ll See You at the Crossroads,” which was a series of works by Renee Stout about Robert Johnson and hoodoo, and it blew my mind. I’m still a huge fan of her art, and it’s had a lot of influence on mine. From there I got interested in African, African-American, and Caribbean arts, especially pieces made for religious use. I read about Haitian Vodou and Santería (or as many of us call it, Ocha), and for a while in the ‘90s I thought I wanted to go into Vodou. But I had no idea how to find a house (and was nervous about it anyway) so I let the idea go. (I confess I did try mixing it with Wicca, but that felt like an insipid way to approach the lwa, so I stopped.)

Mostly, though, I dug in my heels and went into heavy denial of the fact that there was a current of African-influenced something-or-other that tugged at me. I wanted to be Pagan, I wanted to learn the Old Ways of Europe, and I had no earthly idea how I might actually enter one of the Afro-Caribbean religions – not that I tried hard to find out. I just flirted with the idea and kept telling myself that it wasn’t really for me.

In the middle of my Heathen years, I met the man who became my partner, who at the time was a recently-made aborisha (someone with the lower-level Ocha initiations, but not a priest), and we started talking because I recognized the elekes he was wearing. (As a friend of mine put it, “Aw honey, now they’ve sent you a boy.”) We started dating, I joined his Ocha community and became an aborisha myself, and the Orishas began opening doors for me. A year ago, Eleggúa told me in divination that I needed Palo.

And I still dug in my heels and resisted. I did try to join a friend’s munanso (Palo community), but the plans we made for my initiation fell apart dramatically, and I seized the chance to proclaim that maybe it was all a mistake and I didn’t really need Palo. (I can’t recommend this approach to Orisha religion, by the way. They give you advice for a reason.) Luckily, I’d met my Tata-to-be online shortly after that mess, and luckily, he’s a fairly patient man. I finally got over myself and made rayamiento, Palo initiation, in November.

(And, of course, Palo turned out to be the thing I had been searching for all those years. I don’t think anyone who knows me was the slightest bit surprised.)

Stacey Lawless

Stacey Lawless

Is it easy for you to balance your now-dual religious identity? Do you feel like both a Pagan and a student/initiate of Palo? Does one identity dominate?

This is a tricky question to answer. I’ve felt like a Pagan for my entire adult life, despite never finding a home in any Pagan tradition. I thought that Palo would put an end to that, but quite the contrary. I’ve been gaining clarity on what Paganism might mean to me, and some doors have recently opened onto the community that I would never in a million years have expected. I don’t know what the future has in store, but it seems that I’m not done with Paganism yet.

My perspective on it has changed, though. I no longer see Paganism (or Palo or Ocha, for that matter) in terms of beliefs, cosmologies, or ritual forms. I see them in terms of serving gods and spirits in the ways in which they want to be served. So it’s really not a matter of balancing identities or religions; it’s more about maintaining relationships.

I do have a couple of spirit allies from my Pagan past, and the way my relationship with them has changed since the rayamiento is fascinating. I had such a heady, intellectual approach to them before, like I was always half-consciously doing comparative religion around their characteristics. Now they’re beings I know and spend time with.

There seems to be a growing interest in religions like Santeria, Vodou, and Palo among modern Pagans, having lived this process, what do you think drives it? Is there a yearning for authenticity there?

That’s a tough one. I know a number of people who came to Santería from Paganism; some shed their Paganism, others still practice a Pagan religion alongside Ocha, but all of them felt a spiritual calling to Ocha. On the other hand, from what I’ve seen online, there are clearly Pagans out there who are just cherry-picking what they like from the Afro-Caribbean religions and inserting it (sometimes with hilarious results) into their own practices. Neither approach seems to have a lot to do with a hunger for authenticity.

I don’t know. People have always been drawn to these religions for many reasons – the lure of power, a desire for healing, academic interest, involvement with the community, following a significant other or parent in, or even just love for the religions. Maybe some Pagans feel like they need something “realer” than what they’ve got, but I hope for Paganism’s sake that that’s not the only attraction.

What do you think your future with Palo will be like? What do you envision for yourself as you continue to assume the identity of a Palo initiate?

I hope I learn what I need to learn well, and hope I become a good healer. Almost everything in my life is undergoing change right now, so I’m just trying to navigate by what I hope for and let the journey carry me forward.

I think it was Anne Lamott who said, “If you want to give God a laugh, tell Her your plans.”

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.

Margaret Mahy (Photo: David Hallett)

Margaret Mahy (Photo: David Hallett)

That’s it for now, have a great day! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

On Friday, the Contra Costa Times reported that an appeal to overturn a 2010 fraud conviction was denied. California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal decided that prosecutors did not unfairly prejudice the case by bringing up a “voodoo” (though more likely Palo Mayombe, according to one expert) shrine that belonged to Ruben Hernandez, saying the evidence was “highly probative” of his “consciousness of guilt.”

The altar of Ruben Hernandez.

The altar of Ruben Hernandez.

In a 35-page ruling, the appellate court justices noted that Hernandez testified during the trial about the “benevolent purposes served by the dolls.” ”He characterized the dolls as an element of his Catholic faith in which the pins stuck in the dolls were a form of ‘spiritual acupuncture’ to cleanse evil from the individuals the dolls represented. He also believed the dolls would assist in ensuring people were not put in jail wrongfully,” the justices wrote.

This case is just the most recent to raise the question of when, exactly, it is fair and relevant to a criminal case to bring up a defendant’s adherence to a minority religion, or involvement in an esoteric practice. While the justices in the Court of Appeals found that Ruben Hernandez’s altar was fair game, that wasn’t the opinion in the case of Christopher Vaughn, accused of murdering his wife and three children. In that instance, Judge Daniel Rozak ruled that Vaughn’s adherence to Druid beliefs could not be directly referenced, seemingly agreeing with Public Defender Jaya Varghese, who said that “The word ‘Druid’ alone is prejudicial,” and would “significantly impact” his right to a fair trial.

“A Will County judge this morning barred attorneys from referring to quadruple-murder suspect Christopher Vaughn’s Druid beliefs at trial, but said some statements Vaughn posted to a Druid listserv can be heard by jurors. [...] Prosecutors want to use postings Vaughn made to Druid listservs that refer to his desire to live in the Canadian wilderness. They argue his statements were another sign that Vaughn wanted to be rid of his family. [...] Judge Daniel Rozak said he would allow the statements “if they somehow deal with leaving the country or living off the land” and don’t reference Vaughn’s religious beliefs.”

There are two very different cases, but both speak to the fact that the mere mention of a Pagan, Afro-disaporic, or esoteric practices can have an outsize influence on a trial, affecting how juries and judges react. For every instance where bringing up a defendant’s religion might be acceptable, as in the case of Angela Sanford, there are many more, particularly in custody battles, where it is not. Where it’s clear that fear and ignorance are being welded as weapons to win a judgement.

Perhaps the best-known example of this would be the case of the West Memphis 3 (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley Jr.), where Damien Echols’ interest in the occult and Wicca was used as proof of his murderous interests, and the three were subsequently swallowed up in the Satanic hysteria of the times.

The West Memphis Three

The West Memphis Three

“…you really have to put this case into historical perspective. In 1993, the Satanic Bandwagon Folks like Dr. Griffis were mainstream and largely supported by both the media and established religion. We now know better, just like we now know that there are such things as “coerced confessions.” In 1993, virtually everybody believed that the phenomena of Satanic Ritualistic Homicide was very real, and perhaps even more regrettably, that no one, not even a mentally handicapped person, or a child, would confess to a crime that they did not commit. Thankfully, due in large part to pioneers with real credentials like Dr. Gisli Gudjohnson, Dr. Richard Ofshe, and Dr. Richard Leo, we now understand the dynamics of false confessions. By the way, not many people remember that Dr. Ofshe won a Pulitzer Prize for his work studying religious “cults.” He had a dual expertise.”

Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley would end up spending 18 years in prison before being freed in 2011 on an Alford plea, the capstone on an era that saw thousands of lives ruined in part thanks to the willingness of lawyers and prosecutors to wrongfully exploit people’s fears. Today, those fears are still being exploited, invoking “effigy dolls dunked upside down in this brown liquid” to judge the “consciousness of guilt.” Judging the worth of mothers, or even the depths of depravity, through what amounts to a theological popularity contest.

It very well may be that Hernandez, or Vaughn for that matter, are entirely guilty of the crimes they’ve been accused of, but that doesn’t remove the issue of their religion or beliefs being invoked. In Vaughn’s case, his lawyer was able to make sure the case stayed focused on the facts, while Hernandez’s trial allowed his “voodoo altar” to be used as evidence of his guilt, even though the spells may have born from defensive fear instead of from a guilty conscience. It is for this reason, perhaps more than any other, that outreach and interfaith efforts must be maintained.

It’s easy to affect an air of smug superior isolationism when there’s nothing on the line, but in the wider world we must constantly face that our faiths are a tiny minority in world dominated by faiths that have been historically hostile to us. We have to work towards changing perceptions, or else we risk sacrificing all those who end up situations where  misconceptions can mean jail and ruined lives. In the meantime, while we work for change, let’s hope that more lawyers advocate strongly to leave religions most people don’t understand off the witness stand.

Joseph Laycock, scholar and author of “Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism,” examines media coverage of the killing of two boys and one woman over the span of four years in Mexico, allegedly the work of Santa Muerte cultists. Laycock’s Religion Dispatches piece argues that “these murders will likely have lasting consequences for alternative religion in North America,” that they are a “Manson moment” that will have potentially harmful reverberations in the years to come.

Santa Muerte

“It goes without saying these murders are unconscionable, and a tragedy. But attempting to find a grand pattern, or a reason, in a connection to so-called ritualistic violence brings authorities no closer to preventing such crimes—while greatly increasing the likelihood that innocent people will be persecuted.

It is almost a certainty that at some point in the future the events that have unfolded in Nacozari will be presented as “proof” that Santa Muerte is an inherently violent tradition. As Saint Death’s popularity spreads and the Latino American population continues to grow, this is not a theory we can afford to entertain.

If we can accept that not all Beatles fans are Charles Manson, we must also have faith that not all who pray to Santa Muerte are Silvia Meraz.”

Will these incidents provide the tinder necessary to fuel a new moral panic in the United States? We’ve already seen some declare that illegal immigration wasn’t simply a problem of policy, economics, or laws, but a religious war between antidemocratic religious “fanatics” and Western Christendom. Nor is Santa Muerte isolated in this rhetoric, as Santeria has also been invoked in the increasingly polarizing debate over immigration policy in America. These tensions seem likely to increase as the religious landscape in Mexico becomes increasingly diverse (and the diversity continues to filter north).  R. Andrew Chesnut, author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” notes that the once-dominant Catholic church faces “significant competition from Pentecostals, neo-Christians, such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even “heretical” folks saints, such as Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde.”

“Among two of the most dynamic religious practices in the Mexican megalopolis [of Mexico City] are the cults of Saint Jude, patron of lost causes, and Santa Muerte. Centered in the notorious barrio of Tepito, devotion to Saint Death takes place beyond the pale of the Church. Just a few miles away, the Church of Saint Hippolyte draws tens of thousands of devotees to its monthly celebrations of Saint Jude, who shares Santa Muerte’s devotional base of marginalized youth.”

Mix growing outsider faiths, increasingly inflamed rhetoric over the issue of illegal immigration, and reliably bad journalism on often misunderstood religions like Santeria and Palo, with an incident that seems to validate the worst fears of those who are already negatively disposed towards non-Christian or syncretic traditions and you have a potential powder keg. Isolated criminal actions can be, and have been, used to prove the existence of a widespread malefic network. In “Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend,” Jeffrey Victor talks about how Charles Manson and Jim Jones were used to create a stereotype of criminal Satanism.

The stereotype of criminal Satanism merged imagery of fanatical religious cults with that of psychopathic criminals like Reverend Jim Jones and Charles Manson. This dramaic imagery had great mass media appeal. Satanic cult stories were first able to find a channel to a national audience when they appeared in small town newspaper reports as a possible explanation for an epidemic of spurious claims about cattle mutilations. Later, small town newspaper reports about a wide variety of crimes, from a cemetary vandalism to serial murder, began to attribute the crimes to “Satanists.”

Replace “Satanism” with “Santeria” and you can see the pattern emerging once again. “Santeria Panic,” fueled by fear, bad journalism, and extreme events like these “sacrifices” to Santa Muerte. In fact, back in 2010 Kenneth Ross, the law enforcement chief for the Westchester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, made explicit the link between the old panic, and the one that seems ready to emerge.

“I think what happens is you have different cultures coming into the United States, and when the cultures come in they bring their traditions and they bring whatever they practice,” said Ross, the SPCA police chief. “If you look back in the ’70s … Satanism was the big thing and everybody was dabbling in Satanism. I’m sure it happens and that’s how different sects are created within Santeria,” Ross said. “But I don’t know if it’s the dabblers or is it just the influx of different nationalities that bring their own traditions?” the SPCA police chief added.

So if this is the new “Manson moment,” the thing that will spark a new moral panic that could have “lasting consequences for alternative religion in North America,” it raises two practical questions for modern Pagans. How do we derail this trend, stopping it before it ruins thousands of lives as it did during the Satanic Panics of the 1980s and early 90s, and how do we form a workable political coalition with practitioners of Santeria, Palo, Vodou, and other groups that will no doubt inhabit the eye of such a storm?

During the recent Hindu-Pagan panel at PantheaCon 2012, I suggested that our faith’s friendly interactions move to the next stage, that we form a national advocacy group that merges our resources and concerns. Perhaps the timetable on that needs to be moved up and expanded. Considering the amount of overlap between modern Paganism and the African/Caribbean diasporic religions, we certainly can’t afford to simply claim it’s not our struggle. A new moral panic about non-Christian faiths would damage us all, and that’s something none of us can afford at this critical juncture in our movement.