Archives For Romania

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

Vintage Halloween Pumpkin Men

Vintage Plastic Halloween Pumpkin Men by riptheskull

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

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

Japanese McDonalds Costumes

Ronald McDonalds Girls
Photo courtesy of Japan-Talk.com

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

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

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

Disneyland Honk Kong on Halloween

Disneyland Honk Kong
During Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dias de los Muertos Candy

Dias de los Muertos Candy
Photo Courtesy of Lisa Morton

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

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

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

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

 

Trick or Treat: The History of Halloween

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

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.

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.

I have updates on several previously reported stories for you today.

No One Likes a Jedi at Census Time: Last week I reported on the “PaganDash” campaign, which is looking to encourage Pagans in the UK to stand up and be counted in the census, and use a uniform write-in for the census form. However, Pagans aren’t the only group looking to improve their numbers in the 2011 British census. British humanists and atheists have launched a campaign to increase the number of respondents that check “no religion”, taking aim at the Jedi census phenomenon from 2001’s census.

If your religion is of low enough importance to you to that you are willing to put in a religion from 3 good sci-fi films from years ago, and 3 more recent rubbish ones,please consider ticking “No Religion” instead. The data gathered is used to inform government policy, and was used by the last government to justify funding of religious community bodies over secular ones. For example, 2001 census data has been used repeatedly to justify an increase in the number of state maintained faith schools and the increasing level of government money spent on faith organisations. By ticking ‘No Religion’, you will ensure that the Government receives an unambiguous message about the number of non-religious people in the UK. Any other response may be manipulated into a response in favour of religion and publically funded religious organisations.”

The argument seems to have convinced  author and Boing Boing co-founder Cory Doctorow, who says “I’m convinced; we’re atheists and we will list ourselves as such.” There’s other campaigns going on as well, but I wanted to specifically mention the Jedi phenomenon, because I don’t think it just skewed atheist/agnostic numbers. I’ve long thought that those 400,000 “Jedi” also comprised a fair number of modern Pagans as well. In any case, this may be our last chance to get this right, because the UK is seriously considering removing the religion question entirely, with a spokesperson lumping Pagans in with the Jedi as “prank” responses.

Romanian Witches Win Tax Battle: It looks like all those spells and hexes worked. A controversial bill that would require psychics, fortune tellers, and practitioners of witchcraft in Romania be licensed, and tax their largely under-the-table income, has failed.

“I am very disappointed, the bill was meant to prevent people from being deceived by so-called witches,” Liberal-Democrat MP Alin Popoviciu, who initiated the bill, told AFP. Under the text, fortune-tellers and clairvoyants were to be licensed, pay taxes and set up professional associations. “The bill angered many witches who threatened to cast a spell in order to make it fail. It seems they have succeeded,” Mr Popoviciu added.

It seems many feared that instead of protected people from witches, it would instead legitimize the industry, a view shared by some Romanian witches. Popoviciu has vowed to try again, but for now that status quo remains in place.

James Arthur Ray Trial Continues: The trial of New Age self-help guru James Arthur Ray, who’s charged with manslaughter after three people died during a sweat lodge ceremony led by Ray in late 2009 continues. These initial days are seeing the prosecution’s witnesses, including a participant who says Ray “dismissed her alert about the failing condition of a fellow participant,” and an ill-trained sweat lodge volunteer, who says she was not prepared to deal with individuals who were “burned, delirious and unresponsive.” Prosecutors also played an audio recording of Kirby Brown, one of three people who died.

“When we started the (Samurai) game, I was like you,” Brown said on the recording, which was made just before she and the other attendees entered the sweat lodge. It is a segment from recordings made during four days of Ray’s October 2009 Spiritual Warrior Retreat. “I was gonna be the hero, and I died right there before it even began.” Brown, 38, went on to recount the efforts she made to try to save her teammates in the game from sharing her fate, saying that she swallowed her own vomit in an attempt to lie perfectly still. Had she moved, Ray, playing the role of God, would have sentenced another of her team to death. “As I laid there dying and everyone was working, I kept sending my energy to them,” she said.

Defense strenuously objected to the tape being played, that is was “overwhelmingly prejudicial.” You can see why they don’t want that tape played, because it paints a portrait of a man who has utter control over his subjects. Meanwhile, if the comments section of my previous James Ray post are any indication, Ray’s defenders are spinning conspiracy theories and making excuses for their guru across the Internet. After all, once you’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on his “teachings,” I can’ imagine you’d want to believe he’s a negligent egomaniac. It will be interesting to see who the defense calls in this trial, and if they have more than signed waivers and conspiracies to keep their client from prison.

Sex Cult Leader Convicted: Colin Batley, 48, of Kidwelly, west Wales, was convicted of “11 separate rapes, three indecent assaults, causing prostitution for personal gain, causing a child to have sex and inciting a child to have sex.” Batley and his alleged followers were said to wear red robes and read from the Thelemic sacred text The Book of the Law (he had laminated pages from the book at his home), penned by influential occultist Aleister Crowley at ceremonies. Other sources said that all the women in the group sported matching tattoos. As I mentioned in my previous post, Batley claims to have “given up” reading Crowley and was now a Mormon.

“A man has been found guilty of leading a “satanic” sex cult from his home in a small Welsh town. Colin Batley, 48, of Kidwelly, west Wales, presided over a group that preyed on young children and held occult rites. He was found guilty at Swansea crown court of rape and carrying out perverted sexual acts on children and adults. Batley was the self-styled high priest of the group, which operated from a series of homes in a cul-de-sac in the seaside town.”

Four other members of the alleged group were also found guilty. There seems to have been enough testimony from both victims and “customers” to prove some sort of underage sex-ring was happening, what hasn’t been established is how sincere the “occult” elements were, or if they were just trappings of control used on their “recruits”. Nor, at this point, will we ever likely know the full story.

The Further Adventures of Father Gary Thomas: CNN has decided to do profile of Father Gary Thomas, a Catholic exorcist, and inspiration for the Hollywood film “The Rite”. As I pointed out in January, Pagan media critic Peg Aloi got Father Thomas on the record about some of his many retrograde views regarding Pagan religions and “Satanic” underground cults. Despite, or perhaps because of, these views being out in the open Thomas continues to tar other religious systems as pathways to demonic possession.

“A lot of folks dabble in the occult, or they will be involved in practices that … classical Christianity at least would consider to be idolatrous.  People can get themselves involved in Wicca, or people will go see some sort of fortune-teller, or people will go to a séance, or they can go and they can learn how to channel spirits. …”

Father Thomas also mentions an ongoing exorcism case where the client is “suffering from a very unique psychological disorder,” but also, it seems, “been exposed to satanic cults.” He truly seems to think that both are true, and the question is which method to use in treating the client. What I find disappointing is that this is a man labeling an entire religion, Wicca, as a pathway to Satanic possession. Had he done so with Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or Mormonism the reporter would have no doubt called him on his statement. Yet, reporter Tom Foreman’s response is “a vision of politician Christine O’Donnell fills my head.” Proof once again that the press just doesn’t “get religion,” it can’t even properly grapple with the topic of modern Pagan religions in a mature and level-headed manner.

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

Just a few quick news notes to start off your Monday.

American Mystic Director on Pagan Centered Podcast: The Pagan Centered Podcast has just posted its latest episode, featuring an hour-long discussion with Alex Mar, director of the new documentary “American Mystic”. You can download the program, here.

“The PCP Crew interviews Alex Mar of American Mystic, the first movie branded as a Pagan movie to be released to the general public in theaters! The crew discusses their thoughts about the movie with Alex and we all explore the movie at a greater depth. Don’t worry, even though we screened the full movie, we were able to negotiate the right to release the trailer to you as part of this episode so you will have some idea about what we are talking about. Special thanks again to Alex Mar and Empire 8 for making this happen on such short notice!”

Alex and “American Mystic” has been making the rounds of Pagan media lately, doing interviews with The Modern Witch Podcast (not to mention The Wild Hunt), and receiving positive reviews from a number of national Pagan outlets. The DVD will be available for sale at PantheaCon, and will be distributed exclusively to the Pagan community for a few months, before going “wide” this Summer on Netflix and iTunes. This year’s Pantheacon will feature a special screening of “American Mystic”, which will be followed by a Q&A led by me with the director, Morpheus Ravenna, and members of Stone City Pagan Sanctuary.

Witch School Names New President: The Internet-based WitchSchool has named Rev. Anna Rowe, Head of School for Europe and the UK, as the learning institution’s new president.

“Towards the end of January Ed Hubbard CEO of Witchschool asked me to consider the position of President of Witchschool. Ed has said that he has faith and trust in me to do the job so therefore I accepted. I have an extensive knowledge of how Witchschool works from the bottom up as I have been a member of Witchschool since it was originally just the Daily Spell going out via email. [...] I hope that every member of Witchschool will support me in our continued effort to provide anyone, anytime, anyplace with a Magical, Pagan and Wiccan Education. Witchschool is a valuable and growing aspect of the Pagan and Wiccan community and we are open to anyone who wishes to become a member and participate in our peer to peer learning.”

CEO Ed Hubbard commented that this move shows “that Witch School can develop global Pagan leadership.” While WitchSchool has drawn quite a bit of criticism and controversy during its existence, it has also developed a truly global network of students and practitioners, boasting ties from India to Brazil. Will the appointment of a president outside the United States denote a new focus on its international students? How will this affect their Salem campus? I’ll be paying attention as these issues develop.

A (Witchy) Romanian Valentine For You: The Canadian Press notes that a number of Romanian witches, led by Witch Queen Mihaela Minca, have performed a public ritual to help you find love on this Valentine’s Day.

“Joined by a handful of apprentice witches, queen witch Mihaela Minca led Monday’s outdoor ceremony, casting spells with peacock feathers and rose petals. The witches wore colorful, glittering robes in freezing temperatures to perform the ritual in the lakeside village of Mogosoaia.”

In addition to these amorous actions, Minca has been vocal lately in opposition to Romania’s new laws regulating witchcraft and fortune-telling. An issue I’ve covered quite a bit recently. Under proposed new regulations, could she be penalized if you fail in your romantic pursuits? It seems a silly thing to conceive of, but that’s exactly the road Romania’s been traveling down lately.

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

Top Story: There has been a noticeable increase in anti-Native rhetoric from conservative media outlets lately, some of it a result from a blessing given by Dr. Carlos Gonzales at a memorial service for those killed and injured in the horrific shooting in Tuscon, Arizona, and some of it a by-product of anti-Obama administration attacks. Now things are seeming to get far more personal in nature, starting with a disturbingly ugly editorial from talk radio host, and Director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association, Bryan Fischer.

“In all the discussions about the European settlement of the New World, one feature has been conspicuously absent: the role that the superstition, savagery and sexual immorality of native Americans played in making them morally disqualified from sovereign control of American soil [...] Many of the tribal reservations today remain mired in poverty and alcoholism because many native Americans continue to cling to the darkness of indigenous superstition instead of coming into the light of Christianity and assimilating into Christian culture.”

This isn’t first time Fischer has displayed his profoundly anti-Native feelings to the world, but this may be the most starkly ugly display of Christian triumphalism and revisionism I’ve seen in a long while. Do I even need to add that Fischer is also part of the “Green Dragon” hysteria, or would that be redundant? As ugly as this editorial is, some will argue that it’s one isolated extremist, shouting to his avid followers. I would even be moved by that argument if I hadn’t also seen the plan by Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul to cut the federal budget by, in essence, breaking all remaining treaties with Native American tribal nations.

“Check out the proposal introduced in Congress Jan. 25 by the newly elected senator. It calls for the elimination of funding to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Department of the Interior agency that oversees a variety of Indian programs. That’s not all. The senator, who is a medical doctor (an eye surgeon, although seemingly myopic), also proposes trimming almost half of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Indian Health Service (IHS) budget this year. Republicans and Democrats don’t tend to agree on much, but one thing they have agreed on over the years is that IHS has been dramatically underfunded. Like them or not, the BIA and IHS are the main agencies of the federal government that have worked with and for Indians, carrying out federal trust responsibility and treaty obligations called for in the U.S. Constitution.”

Right now American Indians are debating whether Paul simply doesn’t understand the complex issue of (Constitutionally recognized) treaty obligations in a fervor to cut the budget, or if he’s actively trying to limit the power and influence of Native Americans within the federal government. So far Paul has not responded to reporters looking for clarification. Whatever his true motives, this move, coming during a particularly venomous stream of anti-Native sentiment (or simple indifference to Native issues), risks alienating American Indians from conservative political movements for the foreseeable future. This didn’t have to be the case, as many Republicans have been, and are, friendly to Native issues. Some feel that Native Americans are being caught in the crossfire of rising anti-immigration hostility, but whatever the reason, the alienating effects of recent events could have long-term ramifications.

Romanian Fortune-Telling Laws Getting Tougher? I’ve given quite a bit of attention to the recent issue of Romania’s “witch tax,” and the mixed reaction it’s been getting from Romanian witches and fortune-tellers. Now the government has introduced a new bill that would fine, and even imprison, fortune tellers that give bad predictions.

“Witches argue they shouldn’t be blamed for the failure of their tools. “They can’t condemn witches, they should condemn the cards,” Queen Witch Bratara Buzea told The Associated Press by telephone. Critics say the proposal is a ruse to deflect public attention from the country’s many problems. In 2009, Romania needed a euro20 billion ($27.31 billion) International Monetary Fund-led bailout loan to pay salaries and pensions when its economy contracted more than 7 percent. Last year, the economy shrank again. However, this year a slight recovery of 1.5 percent growth is forecast.”

The bill would also bar fortune tellers from practicing near schools and churches. One wonders if this new law would also apply to financial analysts, weather forecasters, and other professionals who make predictions in exchange for money. If this bill passes, how long before a witch is fined or imprisoned? What would it mean for the European Union? This goes far beyond protection from outright fraud, and into restricting speech and commerce.

Alleged Pedophile Cult Cited Crowley: The British press is swarming over the trial of alleged cult leader Colin Batley, who is accused of intimidating an underage teenage girl (and four other complainants) into becoming the sexual plaything of his inner circle. According to the prosecution, Batley and the group would wear robes and read from the Thelemic sacred text The Book of the Law, penned by influential occultist Aleister Crowley.

He claimed Batley would preach from a text, The Book of the Law, written in Cairo by English occultist and magician Aleister Crowley and warned about the consequences of failing to do what they were told. He described Batley as “evil and manipulative” and claimed he used the cult to justify his sexual behaviour. The prosecutor said of Batley: “He is the principal. He and the others became entwined. It became much more than that, a cult. The usual restraints went out of the window. Some took part in wife swapping.” The jury heard how the five defendants moved from London to the seaside village of Kidwelly, near Carmarthen in the 1990s.

Batley claims he “gave up” trying to read Crowley, and that he’s a devout Mormon who’s innocent of the charges against him. The trial so far has included selective readings from the Liber AL, including: “Sex with anyone is not just permissible but to be encouraged. Prostitution is to be admired.” With the main defendant claiming to know nothing of Crowley’s work, it seems unlikely an expert on the text will be brought forward to provide context. Prosecution also claims that all the women in the alleged cult had matching tattoos. As you can imagine, the tabloids are having a field day with this story, I can only hope that justice is done to those harmed. I will keep you updated as more details emerge.

Yoga Is For All: The Times of India reports that the Indian government, in order to stop unscrupulous Yoga gurus from copyrighting various asanas (body positions) and practices, have documented 1,300 asanas and are uploading them to a public database for all to use and study.

“Nine well known yoga institutions in India have helped with the documentation. “The data will be up online in the next two months. In the first phase, we have videographed 250 ‘asanas’ — the most popular ones. Chances of misappropriation with them are higher. So if somebody wants to teach yoga, he does not have to fight copyright issues. He can just refer to the TKDL [Traditional Knowledge Digital Library].”

One of the main culprits in copyrighting and profiting from traditional Yoga positions is Bikram Choudhury, whose Bikram Yoga system has become very popular in the West. Choudhury has been famously litigious, and has become famously wealthy as a result. According the the Times of India, the US patent office alone has issued over 200 yoga-related copyrights. Now, many of these copyrights risk being undermined by Yoga’s birthplace, as practitioners and teachers can reference the TKDL as their source. This move may also have the added benefit of asserting the essential Hindu and Indian character of Yoga, something American Hindu activists have been concerned about.

The Wicker Tree Trailer: Dread Central has gotten their hands on the full official trailer of Robin Hardy’s upcoming “spiritual sequel” to The Wicker Man, The Wicker Tree. Warning, it’s slightly NSFW (that’s “not safe for work” for those playing at home) due to some brief flashes of nudity.

There’s still no release date, but hopefully that information will be released soon. You can read all of my “Wicker Tree” coverage, here.

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

A few quick news notes for you today.

Did Religious Conflict Play A Role? The News Tribune in Alaska reports on the retrial of Rachelle Waterman, accused of plotting the 2004 death of her mother with two older men when she was 16. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, and now the Ketchikan District Attorney is trying again with a second indictment. At issue in Waterman’s defense is whether she truly meant for the two men to kill her mother, and what her mental state was at the time she allegedly discussed having her mother killed. In recent testimony from the woman’s father, Carl “Doc” Waterman, he claims that there was religious conflict in the home.

“He said Lauri was stricter on Rachelle than he was on some things but he never saw any evidence she hit their daughter and Rachelle never told him about anything like that. Neither of them used physical punishment, Waterman said under questioning by prosecutor Jean Seaton of Sitka. Other witnesses have testified that Rachelle told them her mother tried to push her down the stairs, became angry if her grades slipped, and withheld food, telling her she was fat. Prosecutors say she told even more to Jason Arrant and Brian Radel, the men who carried out the killing. Lauri Waterman was a strict Catholic and was upset when Waterman began experimenting with Wicca, a pagan religion and form of witchcraft, Doc Waterman said.”

This case got a lot of Internet buzz when it first made the news in 2004, due to the fact that Waterman had (and still has) a LiveJournal account. Many noted that Waterman claimed to have been grounded over her interest in Wicca (among other things). Now it’s for the jury to decide if grown two men in their 20s (one of whom was dating Waterman) took the irrational rantings of a disgruntled teenager as mandate for murder, or if Waterman, as the prosecution attests, was the mastermind for the killing. I’ll keep you posted as this case develops.

Dan Halloran and the New York Snow Removal Controversy: The New York Times looks at the ongoing story regarding allegations that New York City sanitation workers staged a slowdown after the Dec. 26 blizzard. At the center of this story is New York City councilman (and out Heathen) Dan Halloran, who claims that sanitation workers came to his office and informed him of the planned slowdown (allegedly to embarrass Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg). But evidence has been hard to pin down, and Halloran currently risks professional embarrassment. Recently, Halloran has been softening his story as he nears giving testimony to a federal  grand jury.

In an article that appeared in The New York Post on Dec. 30, he said the workers had been told “to take off routes” and “not do the plowing of some of the major arteries in a timely manner.” “They were told to make the mayor pay,” Mr. Halloran said in the article, “for the layoffs, the reductions in rank of the supervisors, shrinking the rolls of the rank and file.” More recently, the councilman has said the workers were not explicitly told to take part in a slowdown, but were subtly informed there was no need to rush while clearing the snow.

The NYT piece runs down Halloran’s career so far, including his election as an out Theodsman, run-ins with parking enforcement, and recent bankruptcy and divorce proceedings. Halloran now says that his goal “was never to make headlines or anger people,” but that damage may already be done, and he could be forced to give up the names of those who came to him when he testifies. For more on Dan Halloran, check out this recent Pagan+Politics interview.

BBC and a Witch Queen: The Romanian witch tax story keeps on chugging along, this time the BBC interviews “Queen Witch” Mama Bratara, who has threatened to curse the lawmakers.

“Life for witches, astrologers and spiritual mediums in Romania has always been tough. Under the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, the supernatural industry was banned, and now witches say they are being hit again – this time by new tax laws. Once Ceausescu was ousted from power the witches re-emerged to carry on their craft. Their work has a considerable following, particularly in rural areas. Now the government has angered the witches again by making them register as self-employed and requiring them to pay tax, social security, and pension contributions.”

I recommend checking out the video embedded in the story, which gives an interesting look at the formidable Mama Bratara.

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

The mainstream media, and various popular blogs, have had a lot of fun with the news that Romania would start taxing the practice of witchcraft. Most treatments (including mine) focused on the anger of various Romanian witches, as though they were some sort of mystical European analog to our own anti-tax activists.  So it’s admirable to see The New Republic trying to dig a little deeper than the newswires to find out why witchcraft is being taxed now, and what its ramifications might be.

“But, to start, how did witchcraft—subject throughout continental Europe to persecution and prosecution from roughly 1400 to 1800—become business as (not-so) usual in Romania in the first place? The answer might have something to do with the level of superstition that persists even in modern-day Romania. In 2009, following the presidential elections, the leader of the Social Democrats—a man who had previously served as the ambassador to Washington and was expected to make a strong showing at the polls—blamed his surprising demise on an occult attack. In 2010, after the release of a nationwide study, the English-language Romanian newspaper Nine O’clock wrote that fortune-telling and evil-eye precautions play a large role in many Romanians’ lives, and that three-quarters of the population “believes” in horoscopes. And lawmakers reportedly backed down from a similar act to tax witches last September out of fears that they would be cursed. Meanwhile, people claiming to be witches have capitalized on public superstition. The exact scale of the witchcraft economy in Romania is difficult to gauge, but, ten years ago,the BBC reported on “Romanian witches’ roaring trade,” and business seems to have boomed in the meantime.”

Writer Chloe Schama ventures into the possibility that this new tax may mask some latent (and not so latent) anti-Roma feelings in Romania, and she quotes Romanian-born poet/writer Andrei Codrescu, who sees it as “a cheap populist, nationalist move.” Schama also touches on those Romanian witches who see this as a positive development, one that will validate their profession in the eyes of the law.

“From my point of view, this law adopted now is very good and I’m very happy because the Romanian government considered that our magic skills, which are recognized and accepted worldwide, are now authorized in Romania too.” – Mihela Minca, Romanian Witch, interviewed by NPR

Where I part company from The New Republic is the closing paragraph, where Schama talks with Brian Pavlac, author of “Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials”, who opines that this move of validation and recognition might carry unintended negative consequences. These hypothetical consequences aren’t really dealt with, other than a somewhat snarky closing line about vampire hunters (a topic touched on in a recent issue of Harpers). I don’t see validating or legalizing fortune telling or witchcraft as something that is inherently irrational or backward. Instead, I think placing these activities and professions into the light of day will dispel some of their worst excesses, and force a greater accountability to those who practice these arts.

Witch-hunts and persecutions happen when we allow disinformation and marginalization to prosper.  Removing some of the mystery and secrecy might damage the potency of some Romanian witches, but I also think it will help inoculate the populace against moral panics. While I disagree with the closing of this essay, I do give credit to The New Republic for taking this story (for the most part) seriously, and looking beyond the “News of the Weird” angle.

A few quick news notes on this Sunday morning.

Predictions for a New Year: CNN’s Belief Blog asks various religious leaders for their “faith-based” 2011 predictions. Circle Sanctuary’s Selena Fox sees a growth of interfaith involvement for Wiccans and Pagans.

“More Wiccan ministers and other pagan leaders will be actively involved in interfaith organizations, conferences and initiatives in the United States and internationally. Interfaith endeavors will grow in importance in addressing ongoing needs in the world today as well as in responding to natural disasters and other tragedies.”

Most of the predictions are aspirational, though Pagans have made great strides in interfaith recently. CNN’s senior Vatican analyst John Allen Jr. predicts that “Christianophobia” will become a buzzword in 2011, though I’d argue variations on that theme have been popular for generations.

(Don’t) Legalize It: Romania has changed its labor laws to make witchcraft a legal profession, but the local witches and fortune-tellers aren’t lining up to thank the government for it.

“The move, which went into effect Saturday, is part of the government’s drive to crack down on widespread tax evasion in a country that is in recession. In addition to witches, astrologists, embalmers, valets and driving instructors are now considered by labor law to be working real jobs, making it harder for them to avoid income tax.”

One Romanian Witch has already stepped forward to threaten spells against the government, nor is this the first time Witches have fought back against government intervention into their affairs. In a country where mystical attacks are still taken seriously by politicians, the economy must be truly bad for them to move forward on this initiative. As for the Witches, they opposes legal recognition for the same reasons marijuana growers in California do, because it would hurt their bottom line.

Gaia is (coming) Alive! At a recent symposium in Sydney, Australian professor, scientist, and environmental activist Tim Flannery apparently had some interesting things to say about our Earth and the Gaia hypothesis.

Robyn Williams: So there you’ve got an image of the earth, the planet as a god, but also a very sophisticated and credible scientific idea.

Tim Flannery: That’s right. I was tempted in the book to simply give in and call it Earth System Science, because Gaia is earth system science and in many university departments around the world, as you’ll know, Robyn, earth system science is a very respectable science. But as soon as you mention Gaia of course, the scepticism comes out. I didn’t do that though, because I think there’s a certain elegance to Gaia, to that word and the concept, and also because I think that within this century the concept of the strong Gaia will actually become physically manifest. I do think that the Gaia of the Ancient Greeks, where they believed the earth was effectively one whole and perfect living creature, that doesn’t exist yet, but it will exist in future. That’s why I wanted to keep that word.

Robyn Williams: How will it exist in the future? Because an organism is one thing; the earth is complicated, but it is after all a lump of rock with iron in the middle and a veneer of living things outside, and a very thin atmosphere. It’s not an organism, so how is the feedback system such that it stabilises things, temperature anyway, like an organism?

Tim Flannery: That’s the great question. I must admit that as I wrote the book I was unable to come to a clear landing on the extent of Gaian control over the system, because much of the data is equivocal. I think that there is clear evidence for something that I call in the book geo-pheromones, which are elements within the earth system, which when present in very small amounts have very large outcomes, a bit like ant pheromones. But they often do multiple jobs. Some ant pheromones do as well, but many of them are specific. One of those is course carbon dioxide, a trace amount in the atmosphere, four parts per ten thousand is enough to keep the earth habitable. Ozone is another one present in just a few parts per billion. Human-made CFCs are yet another one. Atmospheric dust may well be another one. So these elements in the earth system have a profound impact on the system, and there is some evidence that there’s some sort of homeostasis established, if you want.

This theory that Earth/Gaia is becoming a unified living organism has incensed conservative journalist Tim Blair, who blasts the idea of a “sentient Frankenplanet spirit” and rips into James Lovelock, largely credited with popularizing the Gaia hypothesis, for good measure. Behind the sneers of “general occult weirdness” and “summoning of a dirt god” is the same fear of an environmental “green dragon” seen among American Christians, the over-zealous backlash against the idea that Christianity isn’t the only or final truth in this world.

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

Top Story: As I’ve covered here before, the Supreme Court of British Columbia in Canada is about to hear a case that will decide if the practice of polygamy should be considered a criminal act (as it currently is). There’s been an affidavit filed in support of decriminalizing multiple-marriage from a local Wiccan priest, and the family behind the case is a polyamorous triad. The defense is taking a “Muslims and Mormons” angle, arguing that the evils of polygamy outweigh the free expression of the families involved. Now, The Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association (CPAA) is requesting that the government reveal if they think polyamory falls under their definition polygamy.

“The CPAA brought forward the motion Chief Justice Robert Bauman will consider on Sept 8. It was heard as part of a court reference to examine the constitutional validity of Section 293 of the Criminal Code of Canada. Section 293 bans polygamy. The CPAA wants to know if polyamorists will be caught under Section 293 should it be determined that the section is constitutional. CPAA lawyer John Ince told Bauman the attorneys general for Canada and BC have not delineated what their thinking is on the polyamorists. That, he said, makes it hard for him to prepare a case.”

Ince points out that polyamory isn’t the same as polygamy, as it isn’t patriarchal, isn’t intergenerationally normalized, and isn’t restricted by gender pairing or sexual orientation. The looming case has provoked some to wonder if polyamory is the “new gay”, making legal rights for poly families the next big social campaign after gay marriage. The biggest hurdle will be convincing the public that there’s a difference between the abusive compelled polygamous marriages often found in Fundamentalist Mormon off-shoots and polyamory. As I’ve been saying since 2006, our communities, which openly welcomes and celebrates so many polyamorous relationships (30% of poly families identify as Pagan according to one survey), needs to be ready for when this issue becomes the next culture-war battle.

“…this is an issue that will continue to gain steam as time goes by. Eventually polyamory will reach a “tipping point” and garner widespread national attention. Are our leaders and organizations ready for questions regarding polyamory? Eventually hostile questions will come, and they will cite this Salon.com article, and we shouldn’t be found wanting for a clear, empathetic, and inclusive answer.”

I’d say this court case is the “tipping point” I was talking about in 2007. Even if the courts rule that polygamy should remain criminal this won’t be the end of the issue. We see here the beginnings of a movement that will argue that polyamory shouldn’t fall under the same legal restrictions of polygamy, and we might even see a ruling where the criminal code is upheld but that clarifications of the definitions essentially decriminalize the practice of polyamory. Once decriminalization is achieved, legal recognition is the logical next step. You can also be sure that a victory in Canada will embolden activists in the United States and other countries. By 2012 expect “poly rights” to be in the popular vernacular if not in the court rooms.

One Way to Handle Regulation: In Romania, where mystical attacks are taken very seriously by some politicians, a proposed law that would hold psychics liable for bad predictions has been dropped due to fears of a curse.

“The politicians who had drafted the new law claim it is because they feared they would be cursed if they passed the plans. Alin Popoviciu and Cristi Dugulescu of the ruling Democratic Liberal Party drafted a law where witches and fortune tellers would have to produce receipts, and would also be held liable for wrong predictions. Maria Campina, a well-known Romanian witch, said that it was difficult to tax thousands of fortune tellers and witches partly because of the erratic sums of money they received.”

Despite the success of Romanian witches in the political process, I don’t think threats of magical retaliation would go over as well here in America. We’ll just have to stick to using lawyers, who are far more scary a threat in our culture.

The Wicker Tree is Done: Film company British Lion has announced that post-production for The Wicker Man‘s “spiritual sequel” The Wicker Tree is now complete.

“British Lion has completed post-production on Robin Hardy’s TheWicker Man follow-up, The Wicker Tree. Hardy has reunited with British Lion CEO Peter Snell, who produced the 1973 cult horror story, for the contemporary tale about two Texan Christians who travel to the Scottish fiefdom of Tressock to spread the gospel … “The Wicker Tree is a chilling contemporary take on the genre,” Snell said. “We have a very strong cast, wonderful locations and like The Wicker Man, music plays a pivotal role in the story-telling.”

No word yet on a release date, but at least we know it’s completed. So keep your eyes open for further announcements.

PNC-Minnesota Gets Noticed: One of the goals of the Pagan Newswire Collective is to better inform mainstream media outlets concerning news happening within the modern Pagan community, so I was very happy to see the MinnPost’s The Daily Glean referencing a PNC-Minnesota story.

“A Celtic temple has opened in Northeast Minneapolis, as reported by the Pagan Newswire Collective — the small structure is the first of its kind in North America, dedicated to the Old Belief Society, which derives its beliefs from old Celtic practices. We point this out, firstly because we find it interesting, and secondly to point out just how wide we at the Glean cast our newsgathering net. Come on, who else is reading the Pagan Newswire Collective? Eric Eskola? Hardly.”

Congratulations to the Minnesota bureau! This is only the beginning, our network of bureaus continues to grow, and soon our main site will launch which will highlight and expand on the great local stories our bureaus are working on.

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

Top Story: Reuters is reporting that several Haitian Vodou priests are upset over the creation of anonymous mass graves, saying that it is a desecration which removes all dignity from death. Among those protesting was Max Beauvoir, the appointed “supreme master” of a coalition of Haitian houngans, who met with Haitian President Rene Preval over the matter.

“It is not in our culture to bury people in such a fashion,” Haiti’s main voodoo leader, Max Beauvoir, said in a meeting with Preval. Local radio is broadcasting messages for Haitians to put bodies recovered from under the rubble of collapsed buildings on the street for collection by garbage and other trucks. “The conditions in which bodies are being buried is not respecting the dignity of these people,” Beauvoir, who was educated at City College of New York and the Sorbonne in Paris, said in the Preval meeting this weekend.

Which brings us to the question of whether these anonymous mass graves are indeed a necessity. The Haitian Red Cross President Michaelle Amedee Gedeon says that disease risk is minimal, while the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) says that anonymous mass graves are bad procedure that can worsen the tragedy.

“The belief that bodies pose a serious health threat often leads authorities to take misguided action, such as mass burials, which can add to the burden of suffering already experienced by survivors,” the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said. “The worst part of this is that these actions are taken without respecting the processes of identifying and preserving bodies, something that not only goes against cultural norms and religious beliefs but also has social, psychological, emotional, economic and legal consequences that add to the suffering directly caused by the disaster,” said PAHO … ICRC officials, who recommended only shallow ditches to cover the dead, said: “People need to be able to identify their relatives. It is important to at least take photographs of those being buried and to note any unique physical markings, like teeth and scars.” They cited the Asian tsunami of 2004 in which people were swiftly buried in mass graves or cremated. “We don’t want to repeat those mistakes,” the Red Cross said. But here in Port-au-Prince, fresh fatal errors are committed daily.

Despite the protests and the advice of various health organizations, some 50,000 dead are already lying in pits surrounding Port-au-Prince. Whether this policy will change with the influx of aid and volunteers remains to be seen. There is little to no Haitian government infrastructure left to guide aid efforts, and some may see the mass graves as a more efficient (and psychologically tolerable) solution in the short term.

In Other News: Over at Psychology Today, noted addiction psychologist Stanton Peele weighs in on Mass. Democratic candidate Martha Coakley’s involvement in the Fells Acre ritual abuse case.

“Whenever you mock the trials of witches in Salem, consider having an unrepentant witch hunter in the United States Senate.  Coakley is heavily backed by the Massachusetts Democratic Party, Ted Kennedy’s widow, and President Obama. So witch hunting can be a path to success. Perhaps these worthies are correct in supporting her – they are political people. But I couldn’t vote for Coakley (although I certainly don’t support Coakley’s opponent). Even if Coakley survives this election, however, her campaign has marked her as damaged political goods – something her behavior re “ritual child abuse” should have done, but failed to.”

The Overlawyered blog rounds up more blog and editorial commentary on Coakley relating to the Fells Acre case. Meanwhile, moderate conservative Andrew Sullivan seems to be leading the “Coakley is bad but Brown would be worse” charge at his blog (as are the Democratic partisan blogs, naturally). Though even he wonders if the “perfect storm” of resistance to Coakley can be turned aside. As I said before, I don’t envy the choices presented to Massachusetts voters.

Former Pagan author AJ Drew has apparently converted to Catholicism, and is in the midst of an ugly custody battle with his wife, who he is accusing of ongoing domestic (and possibly sexual) abuse. Here’s the relevant quote concerning his current religious status.

“I think it is fairly clear that religious discrimination can be added to sexual discrimination. In court, as if this were the 16th century, I have been accused of being a Witch. This either because several years ago I wrote some New Age titles or because today I am a practicing Catholic. I can not be sure why they are so concerned with my religious preferences, but the supervisor demanded that I tell her my religious preferences in court while she was testifying against my sanity. It was as if she felt all Catholics or members of other religions to which she does not subscribe are insane.”

As to the issues of abuse, and the custody of his children, I have no idea what the situation truly is. Nor do I feel inclined to venture a guess. Custody cases, especially ones where abuse is alleged, can be quagmires of competing narratives and claims, the results often pleasing no-one. You can read AJ Drew’s side of the story here, and here. Readers can follow up on them, or not, as they wish. As for further coverage here, it’s clear that a connection to the wider Pagan community is no longer desired by Drew (now going by Andrew Schlomann), so barring extraordinary circumstances, I’ll respect those wishes.

Turning briefly to Romanian politics, it seems that Social Democratic Party leader Mircea Geoana and his wife Mihaela Geoana have accused Romanian President Traian Basescu’s (of the Democratic Liberal Party) team on national television of using mystical attacks to win the recent elections.

“National paper Romania libera writes an op-ed on Monday headlined “Voodoo politics”, while TV news channels focused on debates on the “Violet flame mania”, referring to renewed accusations of mystical attacks by President Traian Basescu’s team against Mircea Geoana, his rival in the second round of presidential elections in December 2009. Romanian news agency Mediafax reported that last weekend Mircea Geoana said on Antena 3 news channel that he did not feel drained of energy during the last televised debate of the presidential elections. But while claiming these were childish excuses, he said Basescu was using the support of people with paranormal abilities who were present at the debate. Then, on Saturday, his wife Mihaela Geoana said Mircea Geoana was the target of malicious energy attacks during that debate, which would explain why he was “paralyzed” during parts of the discussion.”

Luckily, it doesn’t look like many are taking them very seriously, even fellow party members are mocking them. You can read more about the “violet flame conspiracy”, here, and here.

In a final note, today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The government thinks you should make this day a day of service, while others are reflecting on King’s legacy in the era of Obama. As for Americans United, they want to remind you of another dream King had, the dream of religious freedom.

“In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right.”

They close with what King thought the true role of religious institutions in America were for.

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

May all of King’s dreams for America, and the world, be fulfilled.

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