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The Kremlin has brought in a raft of laws on religion that Russian Pagans fear could impact their community. The legislation, which came into force July 20, was rushed through parliament under the banner of combating religious extremism.

According to Russian Pagan and activist Gwiddon, the move is “a package of changes to deal with several different laws which are anti-terrorism measures.” He added: “It increases penalties for terrorist action, it puts responsibility on friends and family to report terrorist action, otherwise there is a criminal sentence.”

The laws include making social media and mobile phone companies store all communications for six months, and a summary of each communication for three years. As this is the first move of its kind, it is unknown whether or not it is actually possible to store such a massive amount of data.

The legislation also requires religious groups to register with the Ministry of Justice and to inform the government of the nature of their group, their leaders and members, including civil names and addresses, and where rituals are performed. In addition, groups need to declare in writing that they will uphold Russian values, which includes agreeing with the military draft, upholding the law, and supporting family values. Of the latter, Gwiddon stated, “You have to write that one down, or else you will get problems.”

Vladimir Putin with Russian religious leaders [Photo Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office / Wikimedia]

Vladimir Putin with Russian religious leaders [Photo Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office / Wikimedia]

A failure to comply is regarded as an “administrative injustice” and can result in a nominal fine – approximately 320 roubles. “It’s a small thing, but it’s a precedent,” noted Gwiddon.

For pagans, the main impact comes in the form of what is being defined as “missionary activity.” This makes expressing religious or spiritual thought to a non-member of your group an administrative injustice. It can also cover online activity and violations carry a fine of 50,000 roubles.

Gwiddon said, “Over the past 10 years there have been increasing ties between the State and the Church, the Russian Orthodox Church in particular. Even though our constitution is completely secular, we’ve seen an erosion of that concept in the past few years.”

Russian Orthodox is the official religion, and the Church has enjoyed a boom in governmental support over the past decade. Gwiddon explained, “The Church has become the ideological ministry, the ministry of thought so to speak. They promote governmental agendas and they criticise what the government wants them too.”

He went on to say, “The government uses the Church as the glue to bind society together. This came about intentionally as the government tried to find out what it means to be Russian now, what is our national identity now. They arrived at this idea, as we had so many years of Communism and before that monarchy and empire, and, as all that has gone, they think, ‘We have nothing left but the Church’. About 65 per cent of the people belong to it, not an overwhelming majority but it’s still many.”

According to Gwiddon, the new laws were established to combat all forms of religious extremism, such as radical Islamic groups and also groups like the Church of Scientology and the Hare Krishna movement.

He said: “They are trying to fight terrorism that is influenced by militant religious rhetoric. The law is there to prevent fanaticism in young people. They also want to fight cults and sects which they believe are damaging and destroying people’s lives, by giving away their money, being mind- controlled by these foreign and unusual cults.

“This change is not just to fight terrorism, but to protect citizens from dangerous cults. The government views such groups, such as the Hare Krishnas, with suspicion and are concerned.”

In fact, the first person to be prosecuted under the new legislation was a supporter of the Hare Krishna movement. Moscow was keen to demonstrate this new law in action and, on July 27,  a man from southern Russia was prosecuted for handing out leaflets about the Hare Krishna group that he supports. Someone filed a complaint to the police.

It was later shown that the man was not an official member of this group, but only supported it. However, expressing such thoughts publicly, is considered proselytizing, which is forbidden.

Gwiddon said, “That’s what happens in Russia, a new law comes in and they try it out with show trials to indicate who is being punished and what for.”

The part of the law pertaining to “missionary activity” is what is so concerning for most Russian Pagans. The new laws are vague and open-ended, leaving them wide open for a variety of interpretations – especially as they also cover online activity. Gwiddon explained, “If you speak to your friend on a train, say, about a religious topic and someone overhears you, according to the new law that is an administrative violation and you can be fined 50,000 roubles. You won’t go to jail for it, but it’s a hefty fine, given that the average Russian wage is 30,250 roubles a month.”

Sharing images of deities over Facebook, for example, could also be regarded as proselyting. And, it is unknown as of yet if this law will be applied retroactively to social media.

This crackdown extends to private homes as well as public arenas and venues. Missionary activity has to be confined to a temple or a church, or lands belonging to them and are legally registered, or to cemeteries, morgues and other such sites where religious activities may occur.  This is to prevent door-to-door proselytising, as performed by groups including the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Any sort of worship in public places is banned. This has obvious implications for public rituals, even solo affairs, as any such activity is now subject to the same 50,000 rouble fine. It is not even possible to hold group rituals in your own home, as it is not a designated place for religious worship. Under Russian law, you can own a piece of property personally but you cannot transform into a church or religious building unless you transfer it out of the realm of private dwelling and into the realm of religious dwelling.

The irony is that, although the Kremlin is keen to strengthen the position of the Russian Orthodox Church, few Russians actively practice the faith. Gwiddon said: “In our last National Census in 2011, only 65 per cent of Russians regarded themselves as Russian Orthodox, only 5 per cent of those attend Church services regularly and only 4 per cent have read the Bible. We are not a religious people, we are like Spain – where everyone is Catholic but no one goes to mass.”

The Russian Orthodox Church seems perturbed by the rise of Paganism among the young, echoing a trend across the Slavic nations. “These younger and more energetic group of people are not prepared to conform to an ideology which is about being meek and turning the other cheek,” explained Gwiddon. “They are attracted to Paganism partly because it is more fun. The young men in particular want something more manly and many are attracted to the old Slavic gods or Asatru, where the hero thing is going.”

Romuvan ceremony [Photo Credit: Mantas LT / Wikimedia]

Baltic Romuvan ceremony [Photo Credit: Mantas LT / Wikimedia]

Gwiddon points to neighbouring Lithuania as an example of Paganism being more readily accepted by the authorities. He said, “Lithuania has Romuva – it is a reconstruction of their old faith. But some say it is a continuation. The Romuva are supported by the Lithuanian government. Instead of going to the Catholic church exclusively, they have looked at different options of what it means to be Lithuanian today and they picked up Paganism as one part of the spectrum.

“They have said, ‘This is a flavour of what it means to be Lithuanian’. They use taxpayer money to support them and help build temples in some way at least, even though the majority of Lithuanians are Catholic. In Russia, they have gone for the majority and the rhetoric is that Pagans are the bad sheep and we are lost and can still come back to the flock.”

Gwiddon added, “At the moment the law is very vague and open to interpretation. It is impossible to know how it will be implemented yet.”

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans and Heathens out there, sometimes more than our team can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up. 

georgia sealATLANTA, Ga. – On Monday, March 28, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal vetoed HB 757, a notorious state RFRA legislative bill. Deal said that it “contained language [that] could give rise to state-sanctioned discrimination.” He added, “I did have problems with that and made my concerns known as did many other individuals and organizations, including some within the faith-based community.”

“Religious freedom” legislation in some form has been circulating within the Georgia legislature for several years. The subject attracted national attention in Spring 2015 after Aquarian Tabernacle priest Dusty Dionne spoke publicly about SB129, one of several RFRA incarnations. Dionne thanked the Georgia state legislature for its “forward thinking” on “religious freedom issues,” adding, “This new bill will create sweeping changes that will open the doors for the Wiccans within Georgian communities to worship, work, and LIVE their religion to its fullest.” While SB 129 stalled in the house, new legislation was eventually born. After HB 757 was adopted by both the house and senate, it was sent to the Governor, where it was promptly vetoed.

In his statement, Gov. Deal said, “If indeed our religious liberty is conferred by God and not by man-made government, we should heed the ‘hands-off’ admonition of the First Amendment to our Constitution. When legislative bodies attempt to do otherwise, the inclusions and omissions in their statutes can lead to discrimination, even though it may be unintentional. That is too great a risk to take.”

We asked Dionne for a reaction to the recent veto. He said, “Georgia’s veto of this dangerous bill shows that those that the people of GA elected to protect themselves and make them prosperous, have the hearts needed to serve the entirety of their constituents, not just a radical minority. They deserve all of the praise given to those that protect the free world.”

Other Religious Freedom News

    • Could the Christian Bible become the official state book of Tennessee? On Apr 6, the Tennessee state legislature approved the “Holy Bible” as its official state book. Within its various amendments, legislators further defined which texts were included in the term “Holy Bible.” The bill will now head to Governor Bill Haslam, where it is expected to meet some resistance. Gov. Haslam reportedly feels the legislation is “disrespectful” to what the Bible means and is. Additionally, the state attorney general has expressed concern over the unconstitutionality of the measure. Meanwhile, the ACLU of Tennessee has been watching closely and is reportedly “on ready” should the bill pass. The ACLU wrote, in part, “While the Bible is an important book to many state residents, Tennesseans come from a rich diversity of faiths. Privileging one religion over another not only tramples on the Constitution, it marginalizes the tens of thousands of Tennesseans who choose to practice other religions or not to practice religion at all.” If Gov. Haslam does not veto the bill within ten days of its approval, it will automatically become law.
    • In February, we reported on the Satanic Temple’s fight to offer an invocation before a city council meeting in Phoenix, Arizona. Shortly after adopting a moment of silence in an effort to prevent the TST invocation, the city council brought back religious invocations. However, the new policy only allows police and fire chaplains to give those prayers. TST is reportedly planning to sue the city. In the meantime, the organization has been preparing to deliver an invocation at the July 6 meeting of the Scottsdale, Arizona city council. In an interview with AZCentral, TST spokesperson Stu de Haan discussed exactly what TST plans to say in its prayer. According to the article, TST will “ask the audience to reason our solutions with agnosticism in all things while standing firm against any and all arbitrary authority that threatens personal sovereignty.” However, TST may never be granted this opportunity. Scottsdale is reportedly looking for a legal way out, just as Phoenix did. This story is not yet over.
    • Further north, in the state of Colorado, The Satanic Temple is taking on an entirely different religious freedom issue. Together with the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the two organizations are challenging the distribution of the Gideons Bibles to middle and high school students in Delta County. According to reports, the school district ignored complaints from local atheist organizations, who finally turned to these national groups. After being informed about a similar situation in Orange County Florida, the Delta County school board relented and allowed all informational material. On Apr 1, children in the Delta County district were offered TST’s The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities, along with a number of atheist pamphlets from various organizations. While all of the pamphlets were permitted on campus, one particular one, entitled “The X-Rated Bible: Sex and Obscenity in the Bible,” was first censored with a sticker before it was allowed out for distribution. FRFF did say that it doesn’t believe schools should be a religious battle ground, but it will continue to challenge unconstitutional policies where they exist. The Delta County School District is reportedly rethinking their non-curricular information distribution policy.

[Courtesy Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers / Facebook]

[Courtesy Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers / Facebook]

In Other News

      • In a lengthy interview and full report, The Washington Post shares details about the infamous #Boneghazi story. The article is titled, “21st century ‘witch’ hunt: Tumblr sleuths lead authorities to person who took human bones from a La. cemetery.” In December, social media lit up with tales of human bones being stolen from a “poor man’s cemetery” in New Orleans. A dialog ensued, inciting rage and inviting controversy. In January, officials began a full investigation, while the discourse evolved into an serious and in-depth concern over local gentrification, race, class and religion.
      • In a recent feature, Broadly profiled “The White Witch of Los Angeles” As the article begins, Maja D’Aoust “uses her science background to examine the world through her lecture series, tarot readings, and insightful performances as the Oracle.”
      • In another article, Broadly featured a report on “The Real Witches of Salem Massachusetts.” While such a subject is not at all surprising for our readers, it may be surprising for a portion of the general mainstream population. Broadly interviewed a few local Witches from the famous “Witch City,” as well as discussing the economic aspects of the city’s unique tourist industry.
      • On the lighter side, Salem’s police ran into an all-too-common modern day problem; a digital fumble, if you will. That fumble, caused by autocorrect, was particular amusing considering Salem’s witchy reputation. The error made social media rounds and provided many people with a good laugh. In March, the city’s police tweeted the following:


Beyond the U.S.

    • According to The National, religious belief and affiliation is on the decline in Scotland. The article reads, “The Scottish Social Attitudes survey show 52 percent of people say they are not religious, compared with 40 percent of those who were asked in 1999 when the survey began.” Despite the overall decline, the article also notes that local Pagan organizations have reported an increase in those identifying as Pagan.
    • A similar article was recently published in The Reykjavik GrapevineAccording to this article, “Church membership has declined by about 10% since 2009” in Iceland. However, just as reported in Scotland, “registered Pagans [in Iceland] are on the rise.” The article reads, “Registered members of the Zuists have increased by over 3,000 over the past year. The faith professes worship of the ancient Sumerian gods, but also promises to refund government religious subsidies to its members. At the same time, members of the Ásatrú Society – which follows the rites and ethics of the Old Norse gods – have also increased, by over 500 members.”
    • According to the New York Times, the indigenous women of North Africa’s Amazigh, also called the “Berber” women, “have banded together to fight political Islamism, polygamy, child marriage, and impunity for perpetrators of domestic violence.” Their matriarchal traditions and language are currently being threatened. The article profiles their unique culture, as well as their fight against terrorism and other forms of oppression.
    • The Washington Post published an article titled, “Rare photos show the lives of Russia’s forgotten Mari Pagans.” The article reads, “The attempted suppression of the nature-worshiping Mari has a long and dark history.” The article details that history, as well as their struggle against oppression. In photos and words, the article also highlights the unique and vibrant, living culture of the Mari Pagans.
    • Lastly, Witches aren’t only for Halloween. According to The Daily Mail, “little Witches” come out to cast spells every Easter in Finland. “small colorful witches appear on Finnish doorsteps in a blend of eastern and western religious traditions related to spring. They hand over catkin branches, reciting healthy wishes in exchange for payment that is traditionally chocolate or other candies.”

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans and Heathens out there, sometimes more than our team can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up. 

st. landry parishST. LANDRY PARIS, La. — After releasing a video as part of the department’s Crime Stoppers video series, Captain Clay Higgens found himself at the center of major news story. His Feb. 17 video went viral attracting 15 million hits and national attention, including the ACLU of Louisiana. That very evening, the organization contacted local media directly, citing concerns over Higgens’ “combative” statements, which it felt suggested “violations of fundamental rights of all.” Then, only twelve days after the video’s initial release, Cpt. Higgens tendered his resignation.

Released on Feb. 17, Higgens’ video calls out the individual names of alleged local gang members. However, it isn’t the concept of a crime stopper public service announcement that ruffled feathers and created a public relations nightmare for the sheriff’s department. It’s the content and tone of the video, and the “suggestions” made within Cpt. Higgens’ speech. One of the many cited “violations” is Higgens calling the gang members “animals” and “heathens,” asking for the public to root them out to stop “evil.”

In its statement, the ACLU said, “While we support legal law enforcement and certainly are as concerned as anyone about violence in our neighborhoods, law enforcement officers must be aware of the implications of their public statements.” And then, the ACLU went on to note specific concerns, which included Higgens’ use word Heathen. The response included this statement:

[Higgens] refers to those he seeks to arrest as “heathens.” “Heathen” is a religious term, and unless Mr. Higgins has specific information about the religious beliefs of those individuals, it is both inappropriate and incorrect. And even if it’s true that these individuals, or some of them, are religiously “heathen,” that is of no consequence to their status as criminal suspects. Unless Mr. Higgins believes that all law-abiding people share his personal religious faith – and if he does believe that, he should not be an officer of the law – to call someone a “heathen” and equate that to “criminal” is simply insulting, wrong, and potentially a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

Responding to the ACLU, Higgens told the local media that he was on a “mission from God” and challenged the organization to a public debate. That never happened. In a press conference held Feb. 29 and in a corresponding statement, St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz said that, while he agreed with the overall message of the video, he had repeatedly asked Higgens to “tone down” his words and “told him to stop saying divisive, disrespectful or demeaning things.” However, Higgens’ tone never changed. Higgens willingly resigned on Feb. 29.

You can watch the original video and Sheriff’s press conference on NBC News.

In other news….

  • Last week, we reported on the call for religious literacy and the recent debates on achieving that through the public school system. In January, Harvard Divinity School University and Wellesley College announced the launch a new free online class that tackles this very subject. “The courses are being offered via an online learning platform called edX, which Harvard University launched with Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012.” Each course will cover a different topic and run for 4 weeks.The first course began on March 1. At this point, the only religions listed as being covered are Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism.
  • In Jharkhand, India, a local official is reportedly pushing to end witchcraft persecutions in his state. As noted by local media, Secretary Rajiv Gauba has been backing programs to curb this deeply-rooted problem. Gauba has “organised an awareness campaign to drive away ill founded beliefs on witchcraft” and “instructed officials to organise health check-up camps in affected areas and put such areas under intense supervision.” India is one of the countries that leads the world in witchcraft-related violence.
  • Broadly has published a video about the Mosuo People, who live in the foothills of the Himalayas at Lugu Lake.This region is called the “Land Where Women Rule” and the culture is referred to “China’s Last Matriarchy.” In Mosuo society, the Grandmother holds the most powerful position. It is a world where “women can have as many boyfriends as they want […] and inheritance passes from mother to daughter.” Reporter Milène Larsson spent a week in the region, learning more about the Mosuo’s vibrant culture and unique social structure.
  • Moving north into Russia, “Sociologists at Moscow’s Finance University” performed a survey to highlight the religious climates of various cities in their country. The survey included Paganism or Neo-Paganism.  And, according to that report, the most Pagan or “neo-Pagan” cities are “Komsomolsk-na-Amure, Stavropol, Belgorod, Magnitogorsk, Sterlitamak, Lipetsk, Kostroma, Novorossiisk, Taganrog, and Tula.” The full report is available online in Russian only.
  • There was a unicorn on the loose in California last week.
  • The Ukiah Daily Journal spoke with local artist Pete Ethan Castro, who has “come home” to share his talents. The article reads, “Native American painter Pete Ethan Castro is a Ukiah-born Wailaki descendant who will be the featured artist at the Corner Gallery.” Castro shared his varied professional experiences as well as his personal spiritual and artistic journey, which once included being a land caretaker for Starhawk. Castro’s art can be seen at the Corner Gallery in Ukiah, California through March.
  • Lastly, for something completely different, this hand-drawn animation video has been making festival rounds and earning much applause. The Life of Death was created by Dutch artist Marsha Onderstijn with music by Ramon de Wilde. It celebrates “the day Death fell in love with Life.”

The Life of Death from Marsha Onderstijn on Vimeo.

museum of witchcraftThe Museum of Witchcraft, located in Boscastle, Cornwall, will be undergoing major renovations over the next two months. These changes will include a complete overhaul of the shop and entrance way. Director Simon Costin said the first two galleries will also be “radically altered to allow for new material.” Part of the gallery expansion will be the installation of old Victorian cabinets donated by the Museum of Zoology in Cambridge.

In addition to those renovations, the Museum will also have a new temporary exhibition space. Costin said that the first exhibition will display the “illustrations made by Jos. E. Smith for Erica Jong’s book Witches from 1980.” The museum is currently closed to the public and will reopen on March 28.

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AREN_ACTIONACTION, the newsletter for the Alternative Regions Educational Network, has just published a nearly all-Polytheist issue. Editor Christopher Blackwell had been working toward the goal of featuring Polytheists for some time. Finding interviewees is difficult, as he will tell anyone. However, finding interviewees all within a specific religion or practice is even tougher.

The results of his efforts are published in ACTION’s Imbolc 2015 edition. All but one of the interviewees are practicing Polytheists. Those interviewed include Anomalous Thracian, Conor Davis, Niki Whiting, Rhyd Wildermuth, Khi Armand and Karen Tate. Blackwell enjoyed putting together this edition and believes that the interviews, particularly Thracian’s, provide a great introduction to the “hard polytheist view point.”  The newsletter will be available on Aren’s website today.

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Portals-GraphicMusician and Artist Sharon Knight announced a new project, which will include an album, an art book and a music video. The project is titled “Portals.” On her site, Knight wrote, “For as long as I can remember, I have yearned to be part of a thriving artists’ community, one that lifts each other up and shines a light on each another’s talents. With the Portals project, we plan to do just that.”  

Knight, Winter and friends will record the new album as they travel around the country on tour. Describing the project, Knight said it will have a carnival feel filled with “mystery, magic and the unexplained.” Some of the musicians and artists already on board are SJ Tucker, Betsy Tinney, Caith Threefires, Valerie Herron, Morpheus Ravenna and more. The project’s fundraising campaign will be kicked off on Feb. 13 at the PantheaCon conference held in San Jose, California.

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conservation district

James Stovall, an active member of the Michigan Pagan community, was recently elected to the board of directors for the Jackson County Conservation District (JCCD). The JCCD is a locally-controlled state agency that serves as a “gateway” for local conservation issues, offering consultation and advice. Although he ran unopposed, the journey to winning the election was not without its work.

Stovall said, “I ran for the board seat not only because I could then be involved in setting policy for local environmental issues, but to help represent the minority voice. My wife and I own The Wandering Owl, the only metaphysical store in our area, and we are quite open about our spiritual beliefs. I have always felt it is important to be the type of person that others outside our subculture could relate to. We build friendships and support that way, because we become the people they know from scout meetings, board memberships, local business, or civic groups, and not something to fear.”

In other news:

  • The Aquarian Tabernacle Church announced Thursday that Janet Farrar has invited its members to help with ritual facilitation at Michigan Pagan Fest. Farrar, together with Gavin Bone, are the headliners for this year’s festival, which will be held in Belleville, Michigan from June 26-28.
  • Grey Mare Books, an independent publishing imprint in the U.K., is looking for submissions for a new devotional anthology titled “The Grey Mare on the Hill.” The project was inspired by the work of the Brython group, which has published a number of writings on its blog including “liturgical material, ritual practices and modern myths.” In addition to using that work, the publishers are looking to include other writing focused on the “Horse Goddesses of Sovereignty and of the Land.” Submission information is on the website.
  • Lithunania’s Pagan culture was featured on the Travel Channel’s show “Booze Traveler.” While visiting the country, host Jack Maxwell got a taste of these local religious traditions. The show’s website explains, “Lithuania proves that 50 years of oppression didn’t change the ways of the people. Jack gets an inside look at the world of paganism, its rituals and its love for mead.” Commenting on the experience, Maxwell himself said that Paganism was not what he expected, adding “It’s just people celebrating the earth and what’s natural.”
  • Circle Sanctuary‘s popular podcasts are changing direction. Rev. Selena Fox will begin a new weekly podcast called “Nature Magic,” which will air every Tuesday night at 7pm CST on Pagans Tonight Radio Network. “Circle Talk” has now moved to 8pm.
  • Finally, a fire has destroyed the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences in Moscow. This particular research library, established in 1918, is one of Russia’s largest and one of the world’s greatest resources for historical and scientific documents. The loss is now being likened to the Chernobyl disaster. For Russian Pagans, especially those who adhere to Slavic-based practices, the loss is of particular concern, because the Institute held a significant number of ancient Slavic texts. We spoke with our Pagan contacts in Russia, who informed us that nobody really knows at this point how extensive the damage is and which texts have been destroyed. We will continue to follow that story for updates.

That is it for now.  Have a great day!

 

 

Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin

MOSCOW –An influential figure in the Russian Orthodox Church has said he’d like to see “neo-paganism” made illegal in that country. In remarks at the international congress of Orthodox youth, as reported by Interfax, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin declared, “Let’s say that three things – Wahhabism, Nazism and aggressive neo-paganism – should be removed from the country’s life at the level of the law. Let’s not try to be friends with any of that.”

We spoke to Gwiddon Harvester, the national coordinator of the Pagan Federation International Russia. He provided some context for this statement for Western readers.

The Wild Hunt: Is Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin credible enough that his suggestions might be considered by the authorities?

Gwiddon Harvester: Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin is the Chairman of the “Department of External Relations of Church and Society” in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). He is also a member of the National Civic Chamber, a hand-picked counsel of 126 persons, who are supposed to be advising the Kremlin on issues important to the Russian people. He is a member of the “President’s Committee on Liasons with Religious Organizations.” He serves as a parish priest in Moscow. Unofficially, he is regarded by many as a “Church spokesperson.”

Whether he is considered credible enough by the authorities or not is a very open question. Russian internal politics are extremely opaque … Despite a formal separation of Church and State in the Russian Constitution, we have seen a general trend over the past twenty years of gradual merging of the Church into the fabric of Kremlin’s power system. It is not a great stretch to claim that as far as everyone is concerned the ROC is the Kremlin’s “Department of Spiritual Ideology.”

ROC receives significant state funding and forced “shotgun donations” from businesses; holds monopoly licenses on certain sectors of the economy, [and] receives vast grants of land and buildings. The State conveniently allows the ROC to maintain non-transparent accounting and hushes up any scandals related to money-laundering, corruption or pedophilia in the ROC. The Kremlin in turn uses the Church influence on the common folks to translate certain ideas and messages.

I do not believe that everything Chaplin says is sanctioned by the Kremlin. It is not quite as simple as that. There have been times in the past, when Church rhetoric provoked significant public backlash, and Chaplin was forced to backpedal or refuse ownership of his words.

Considering that this particular speech was presented at the “International Forum of Orthodox Youth” in Moscow, this could be an unsanctioned, personal or a ROC-sanctioned only attempt to tie-in religious extremism of various kinds (except for the Orthodox extremists, whom Chaplin conveniently omits) with political risks … Whether or not the Kremlin makes a fuss over it, we do not know yet.

Considering how often Chaplin says outrageous things, I doubt that much will come out of this particular speech. Then again, as the Kremlin becomes increasingly unpredictable, anything is possible.

TWH: On what basis does he lump together these three concepts? What do you think he means by “aggressive neo-paganism?”

GH: I am unable to do any sort of analysis on how he lumps up these concepts. The only clear description is that of Wahhabism, which Chaplin calls, incorrectly, “pseudo-Islamic.” He also talks about Nazis, but whether he means the Russian nationalists or actual followers of Nazi ideology, I cannot wager a guess.

I do not know precisely what he means by “aggressive neo-paganism,” as this turn of phrase is new to me. I have not seen this [term] being used by anyone in the past. However, if I were to speculate, the main theme may be an extremist ideology … and the potential for using violence.  Chaplin says that these extreme groups are more likely to cause a revolution than the liberal democrats, which the Kremlin fears the most at the moment. Therefore, he proposes to pass a law banning the extreme ideology.

By the way, extremism is already a criminal offence in Russia, meaning that anyone publicly calling for extermination of certain members of society or claiming their own superiority gets jail time … Chaplin’s suggestion to ban the ideology is redundant, as extremism is already a criminal offence.

[In] another article, dated Feb. 2014, as a response to the shooting in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Chaplin says that there is a danger from “pseudo-islamic extremists, Neo-Nazi and Neo-Pagan groups.” It means that he was working on developing ties between these three categories for some time. In that article, Chaplin also refers to the Church Counsel of 1994, where a resolution was adopted regarding danger of Neo-Pagan cults, because these cults, in the opinion of the Counsel “aggressively destroy the Russian traditional values and attack the position of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

300px-Christ_the_Savior_Cathedral_Moscow

Russian Cathedral in Moscow [Public Domain]

TWH: Are there extremist Pagan elements in Russia? Alternatively, do people perceive this as the truth, whether or not it is?

GH: This really depends on our definition of Paganism. There are several Russians who identify themselves as Pagans and at the same time espouse a philosophy of hatred towards the society at large, members of other ethnic backgrounds, or homosexuals, or women, perhaps. Their numbers are very small .. but I cannot simply say that they do not exist.

As a national coordinator for Pagan Federation International Russia, I use the following rule of thumb. Iff someone hates others and calls for violence against others, then they are violating the second principle of PFI, and as far as I am concerned, they are not really Pagan, but rather psychopaths, abusing Pagan symbols…

Over the years, we had several incidents, involving such individuals.

  • The largest one was over the “Ancient Russian Inglian Church of Orthodox Old Believers-Inglings” – a group, registered in Omsk in 1992 by Alexander Khinevich, [who] published several books and formed a brain-washing cult, which mixed elements from Scandinavian Sagas, Hindu mythology, Slavic folktales, science fiction (aliens), Mormonism, with rituals from Orthodox sects of Old-Believers (starovery) … Every other Pagan group in Russia considers Khinevich a charlatan, a fraud and someone who abuses the very name of Paganism.
  • In 2009 there was a much-publicized murder of Daniil Sysoev, a parish priest of ROC in Moscow. Sysoev was famous for hateful and extremist rhetoric, as well as dubious efforts of converting Muslims, protestants and Neo-Pagans “back to the flock.” He was shot to death in his own church by an unknown gunman. Interfax widely distributed news, that an unidentified informer told the police that Sysoev was murdered by Pagans … The police currently consider that Sysoev was most likely murdered for converting Muslims to Christianity.
  • In February of 2014 there was a shooting in a church in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. An armed security guard, Stepan Komarov, killed a beggar and a nun, as well as wounded six worshippers, while shouting for everyone to get out of the church. He was detained by police and is currently awaiting trial … [Komarov] had a nazi swastika and a pseudo-Pagan symbol of the sun tattooed on his torso and back … ROC Bishop of Sakhalin Tikhon claimed that this was an attempt to scare people away from the Church and shared that he believes Komarov is a Neo-Pagan.

From time to time, the police detain certain individuals and ban published materials of small Pagan groups for violating the law on extremist literature, usually due to anti-Semitism or anti-government rhetoric. However, in all cases that I am aware of, these individuals were also members of right-wing nationalist groups, so their arrests were not connected to Paganism, per se.

Based on the facts of the matter, I cannot find any aggressive Neo-Pagans out there, who Chaplin alleges are so dangerous, that they can start up a revolution. If there were, we certainly would have knowledge about them in one way or another … The majority of Pagans seem to be happy where they are and don’t feel the need to insult others, or insist on their own superiority. They are doing their own thing and often don’t really know much or care about what others are doing. A growing minority also wants to create ties with Pagans from other countries and recognize common European Pagan heritage. These are the sort of people, who are willing to work with PFI, the more open-minded kind.

TWH: If ROC does has so much influence, why is ROC specifically so concerned?

GH: The reason why ROC is so concerned about Neo-Paganism, and why it thinks Neo-Pagans are aggressive, may be due to the fact that over the past twenty years or so, the ROC is working on monopolizing Russian religious thought. Since 2009, the Church repeatedly stated that Christian Orthodoxy is the only faith for ethnic Russians, in fact, they credit Christianity with the creation of the Russian nation. Therefore, Russian Neo-Pagans are a threat to their monopoly.

How can you be an ethnic Russian and suddenly not an Orthodox Christian? To ROC this is a very dangerous idea. A young and head-strong ideological rival threatens ROC access to State funding and support. This is a question of survival for ROC, as the State may just as easily decide to ditch its support for archaic and poorly-attended ROC, and switch to supporting the young and growing Russian Pagan movement. In the early 1990s the State ditched the communist ideology to support the ROC, so, who is to say that the same thing will not happen again.

Now, the irony of this whole situation is that every Pagan I talked to really dreads any sort of State support or involvement in Pagan affairs, including State funding. The idea of having a national Pagan religion as part of the State ideology will be a disaster for us. Our strength is in being true to our own vision of spirituality, growing organically … What Pagans need is for the State to provide a level playing field, and not to play favorites.

The reference to 1994 Church Counsel in Chaplin’s Feb. 2014 article is revealing, in that Chaplin appears to refer to a very specific Neo-Pagan “aggression” in his speech. Namely, the critical or humorous references to ROC in writings and internet messages posted by some Pagans. Now, Pagans all over the world like to poke a bit of fun at Christianity’s expense now and again, and I personally find it quite in poor taste to do so, as I know quite a few devoted Christians, who are very sincere and actually help others.

[But] ROC is a bit thin-skinned about any sort of criticism, I think in a way, because they are not at all sure of themselves, of how stable they are. Some humor is just too close to the truth for their comfort. ROC would like to position this criticism and humor as sacrilege and aggression. However, I can hardly envision the public buying that idea.

pf_web1TWH: What is the general public attitude toward Pagans in Russia?

GH: [The Public] is largely unaware of the Neo-Pagan movement altogether. Most Russians are not religious at all, although many are superstitious. Hardly anyone ever goes to Church. The only well-attended Church celebration is Easter, and even then people go to Church just to get the eggs and the bread blessed and leave immediately after…

According to the National Census in 2012, 41% of Russians identified themselves as Orthodox Christians. Fewer than 4% of all Orthodox Christians regularly attend mandatory Church services and fewer than 5% belong to a parish. Fewer than 8% have ever read the Bible and fewer than 1% believe that following a different religion is a sin.

Whenever I speak with non-Pagans about Paganism, they mostly think this is a role-playing club or an Eastern religious cult of some sort, something like the Society of Krishna. However the vast majority simply have no idea what it is, or vaguely remember something from school about Christianization of Rus in the tenth century CE and find it surprising. I have never heard any members of the public, other than ROC officials, refer to Neo-Pagans as aggressive or dangerous.

TWH: Was PFI familiar with Chaplin’s recent statements? Do they come as a surprise?

GH: PFI was aware of this talk by Chaplin, as it was mentioned on national news. We decided not to pursue this matter, as there appears to be no specific harm done, and the matter is not new.

TWH: Can you briefly characterize the types of Pagan religion practiced in Russia?

GH: The National Census in 2012 identified that 1.2% of all Russians adhere to Pagan faiths. About half of them belong to native non-Russian ethnic groups … It is estimated that Russian modern Pagans number around 600,000 people in total. PFI commenced an ongoing poll in 2014 held at vk.com, where Pagans may report their tradition or path. Over the past six months 3,049 Pagans participated in the poll, which makes up for about 0.5% of total estimated Pagan population. This percentage is significant enough for statistical purposes to draw an estimate of relative numbers of Pagans in each path.

  • 31.4% Slavic Paganism (reconstruction)
  • 25.8% could not identify themselves with any particular path or were newcomers
  • 18.7% Wicca
  • 15% Asatru
  • 3.2% – Neo-Shamans
  • 3% – Other Reconstructionists (Celtic, Hellenic, Khemetic, etc.)
  • 2.2% – Hermetic (Western Occult) Pagans or Thelemites

This data needs to be adjusted for the fact that not all Pagans are on the internet or have accounts at VK and that many chose not to participate. At present, we have not determined a multiplier robust enough to present credible figures.

I estimate that at least half of all Pagans, or 300,000 people, follow a Slavic path in some way, shape or form. They are inspired by written accounts of old Slavic practices, ethnography, folk traditions, fairy tales, modern Pagan books, as well as their own insight … There are several large associations of Slavic Pagans at present, and many individual groups in various Russian cities.

Many Pagans do not want to be confined to a specific tradition or path, and are happy to pursue their own thing, gathering information and experimenting with various concepts and ideas, including Hindu religions, Tao, Tantra, Dzen-Buddhism, the left-hand path, new age concepts. There are also those who would research the ways of old Russian vedma.

Most Wiccans in Russia are solitary eclectic witches, learning from books and the internet. There are open groups available in Moscow and St Petersburg that we know of. Many Wiccans are university students or young adults.

Asatru and other Norse path practitioners have been practicing for some time in Russia, although I do not know when or where the first groups started. There are groups of Asatru in several cities now, the; the largest ones are in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Other traditions and paths include Neo-Shamanic practices, both Siberian and Castaneda, reconstructions of various ethnic Pagan traditions, Celtic being most popular, followed by Khemetic and Hellenic or Roman. Some reconstruct the Germanic traditions … There are Hermetic groups in Moscow and St Petersburg, mostly of French Masonic or Rosicrucian background. There is an O.T.O. camp and quite a few followers of Thelema.

Russian Pagans cleaning the stones on May 7th

Russian Pagans cleaning public sacred stones 2014

TWH: What is the climate for those practicing minority Pagan faiths in your country?

GH: The climate, generally speaking, is quite neutral. I cannot in all honesty claim that Pagans are being persecuted at the moment in Russia. We are free to set up any internet presence we want. We are free to report the creation of local Pagan groups to the Municipal government, and nobody makes a fuss. We cannot register religious organizations at the moment, unless a religious group has been in continuous practice for 15 years. But these rules are the same for all newer religions, not just Pagans. The public is generally not aware that we exist, however, both Slavic Pagans and Wiccans participated in TV documentaries on National TV over the last few years, and we heard hardly any feedback from the community.

We generally gather in public parks in Moscow or at private dwellings, and I have not heard of any trouble. I personally lead a Wiccan ritual in robes in the middle of a busy lawn in Gorkiy Park after work and not a single passerby even stopped for a gawk. Slavic groups set up permanent altars and open-air temples with statues of Gods in public parks from time to time around Moscow. Occasionally these statues get vandalized, usually by fanatical extreme Orthodox youth groups, or perhaps just deranged individuals, one may never know.

Overall, we try to go by the rule of “live and let live,” not to be too much “in your face” of the establishment, and at the same time not hiding from anyone.

Russian Republic Legalizes Neo-Pagan Faith 

Russia, more often making headlines for repression of minority faiths, recently recognized the neo-Pagan faith Aar Aiyy as an official “religious organization” in the Siberian Russian Republic of Sakha. Religions with this special designation receive greater protections and privileges in Russia than those who are merely religious groups.

Map courtesy of Geo Currents. Sakha (Yakutia) would be the world’s eighth largest country by area if it were independent.

i Map courtesy of Geo Currents. Sakha (Yakutia) would be the world’s eighth largest country by area if it were independent.

Aar Aiyy appears to be a modern neo-Pagan revival of the indigenous shamanistic religion Tengrism. Tengrism flourished among the Turkic-speaking population of the Siberian Yakuts, the Turks, Huns, Mongolians, and Hungarians. In Siberia the religion waned in the 1600’s when Russian Orthodox Christians moved into the area. When Siberia was under Soviet control, all religions were suppressed but folk practices managed to survive into present time.

Aar Aiyy, meaning “belief in higher deities,” holds that there is one supreme God but also many spirits and other divine beings. Practitioners believe there are three worlds – the heavens, the world we know on earth, and the underworld.

According to a phone interview with Avgustina Yakovleva by the Moscow Times, adherents of Aar Aiyy have been working towards official recognition for 18 years.

Under Russian law, religions fall in one of three categories: a group, and organization, or a central organization. Central organizations are large religions that exist all over Russia such as the Orthodox church. Organizations are those who are stable in number, but may only exist in one location. Groups are informal, tiny and are not concentrated in one area. Unlike groups, both types of organizations are formally recognized and protected by Russian law. They also receive special privileges such as the ability to own land and build a place of worship, the use of public buildings for activities, the ability to form charitable groups and have centers for education, and the right to print and distribute information.

The road to moving from a group to an organization is difficult and takes a minimum of 15 years. Here are some of the requirements to form a religious organization:

  • At least 10 citizens to found the organization who all live in the same town or rural area
  • An application for registration
  • A list of those who form the religious organization with an indication of their citizenship, their home address, and date of birth
  • The charter of the religious organization
  • Minutes of the constituent meeting which founded it
  • A document issued by an organ of the local government and confirming that the said religious group has existed over the course of no less than fifteen years on the relevant territory
  • Information on its basic creed and related practice, including the history of how the religion arose and a history of the said association. The forms and methods of its activity, its attitudes toward the family and marriage, toward education, particulars of its attitude toward the health of its followers, restrictions on the organization’s members and clergy as regards to their rights and duties as citizens
  • A document confirming the location (legal address) of the of the newly formed religious organization

Even if a group completes all the steps, they can still be denied official recognition and protection. If authorities don’t believe the group is truly religious in nature, one of the founders is deemed incompetent, or the religion’s beliefs and practices are seen as incompatible with Russian law.

Siberian Fisherman Catches a God

According to The Siberian Times, “Nikolay Tarasov was fishing in a river near his home in Tisul, in the Kemerovo region of Siberia, when he caught something unexpected and very old.

“Me and a friend were walking on the river bank with nets, when suddenly it got stuck with something,” he said. “I found the object, freed the net and was about to throw it back in the water – but at the last second I looked at it more closely,” he said. “And I saw a face. I stopped and washed the thing in the river – and realized it wasn’t a stone of an unusual shape, as I thought earlier – but a statuette.”

The figure turned out to be a carved figure over 4,000 years old. The bronze age figure was originally carved in horn, but fossilized. According to Marina Banschikove, the director of the Tisul History Museum, the find is especially exciting as, “The only things we have dated approximately to the same age are a stone necklace and two charms in the shapes of a bear and a bird.”

Museum officials believe the figurine is that of a God from either the Okunev or Samus cultures. The figurine has almond shaped eyes and a large mouth with full lips. On the back side of the head there is plaited hair with wave like lines. Below the hair there are lines which look like fish scales.

Figureine of a bronze age God. Photo credit - Siberian Times

Figureine of a bronze age God.
Photo credit – Siberian Times

The Samus culture existed around the 2nd millenia BCE in the western region of Siberia. They were known for living in half-dug-out dwellings and built monuments filled with ceramics, cast bronze armament and tools, and carved figurines.

The Okunevs lived around the same time, but were found in southern Siberia. The Okunevs created stone slab burial structures. They made lavishly decorated juglike and conical vessels and worked in bronze and copper. They were prolific stone carvers.

 

The Maiden stone. Photo credit - Pagan Federation International

The Maiden stone. Photo credit – Pagan Federation International

On May 3, for the second time in two years, two stones long associated with pagan worship, were vandalized. The stones are located in Kolomenskoye Park in Moscow. Vandals spray painted “This is sin!” and “Idolatry” on the two stones. Area Pagans, who came together to clean the stones, suspect radical Christians for the vandalism. Police and Kolomenskoye Park officials are investigating the crime.

History of the stones
According to Gwiddon, National Coordinator for Pagan Federation International Russia, the two stones have a long history of worship. “The two stones in question, known among the simple folks as the Goose stone and the Maiden (Devichiy) stone, have been brought over by advancing glaciers tens of thousands of years ago from up north and deposited in the Golosov Ovrag [river] when the glaciers finally melted around 12 thousand years ago.” Gwiddon says that there’s archaeological evidence of worship at these stones going as far back five thousand years.

Gwiddon also states that the veneration of these stones has continued to this day, “The trees all around the stones are all covered with ribbon offerings. There is always food left out as offerings as well. People collect water from the nearby brook, considering it holy water.” He says the main reason most people visit the stones is because the stones are said to have healing powers. The Goose stone is alleged to cure illnesses specific to men while the Maiden stone cures infertility and any sort of women’s health concern. The majority of those who currently leave offers or visit the stones for healing are thought to be Christians, although are Pagans do hold special reverence for the stone.

Just over 20 years ago, the Moscow municipal government categorized the stones as “Natural objects under Special Protection”, which carries the same level of protection under the law as a natural preserve or a national park.

The stone being vandalized in 2012, photo from Bozhya Volya social media

Stones repeatedly vandalized
In the summer of 2012, the two stones were vandalized with the phrases “This is sin!” painted on the Goose stone, and “Idolatry is sin” on the Maiden stone. A group of radical young Christians, under the leadership of a man named Enteo, took pictures of the vandalized stones and posted them on the Russian social network VK, which is similar to Facebook. No criminal charges were laid by the administration of Kolomenskoye Park, whose care the stones are under. Shortly after the stones were washed clean by several Pagan activists.

Enteo is the founder of a group called, Bozhya Volya (Will of God), a group suspected of engaging in vandalism and violent acts against political and human rights groups, Pussy Riot supporters, homosexuals, abortion clinics and artists. In 2013 the group petitioned to close a Moscow metaphysical supplies store. The attempt was unsuccessful.

screenshot of enteo's post

Post by Enteo: Time and date: May 2, 2014 at 21:32 (9:32 pm Moscow time) TRANSLATION: “Dear friends. Tomorrow (Saturday) at 12:30 pm, make sure that you will follow us on a missionary act. We will visit the chief pagan temple in Moscow – idolatory rocks in the Velesov bank in Kolomenskoye Park. Thousands of people visit them daily, pray to them, take energy from them, and leave them offerings. The paint markings put on them two years ago have already vanished We once spent an entire summer there, preaching – this is an excellent place, there is a devil inside that stone. Father Valentine will be there with us. We will meet at the entrance to Kolomenskoye subway station opposite the movie theater.”

On May 2, 2014 Enteo posted on his VK page a call for everyone to gather in Kolomenskoye Park, as the “paint markings put on them two years ago have already vanished.” The post, as translated by Gwiddon, mentions there are demons in the stones, and that he will be accompanied by a priest. Photos of the 2012 vandalism of stones accompanied the post.

The next day the two stones were vandalized again. “This is sin!” was painted on the Goose stone and “Idolatry” was painted on the Maiden stone. Later that evening, Enteo posted on his social media account that someone vandalized the stones, but claims he doesn’t know who is responsible.

Tensions escalate
The Kolomenskoye Park administration, on May 5, claimed that protection of the stones is not under its jurisdiction and that vandalism against natural parks is handled by another government body, Rospprirodnadzor. The Park said it may reassess becoming involved if it receives written statements from citizens along with materials showing who is responsible for vandalizing the stones. This response, along with no mainstream media reports, caused some Pagan concern that an official investigation into the incident would not be forthcoming.

By May 6 eight different Pagan groups decided to clean up the stones, but the groups didn’t appear interested in cooperating with each other. One group set May 10 as the date for Pagans to gather and clean up the stones. Hours later, Enteo posted on social media that Bozhya Volya should gather at the stones on May 10 to stop the Pagans and he also called on all Christians to desecrate all pagan holy sites. These posts were passed around Russian Pagan groups and social media sites. One of the Pagan groups with more nationalistic leanings was especially angered, and concerns surfaced about the potential for a violent clash between nationalist Pagans and the radical Christian group.

Pagan community rallies
Some Pagan groups and individuals didn’t wait for organizing efforts. By the evening of May 6, the paint was mostly scrubbed off. On May 7, another large group of Pagans and eco-activists did a more thorough cleaning of the rocks and and documented the efforts.

Russian Pagans cleaning the stones on May 7th

Russian Pagans cleaning the stones on May 7th, photo credit Pagan Federation Internation

By May 8, with the need for cleaning the rocks over, the May 10 scheduled cleaning event hosted by Pagans was canceled and tensions reduced. Bozhya Volya has since switched their focus to joining other Orthodox activists in a boycott of the Polish metal group “Behemoth,” which they believe promotes Satanism. Due to the boycott, three Russian cities have canceled Behemoth concerts.

Gwiddon says the act of vandalism, and the conversations in the community about what would be a proper reaction, has brought the fragmented Pagan community closer together, “If anything, this act of vandalism served to solidify the local Pagan community, as literally 2500 people all over Russia actively voiced their disapproval of this act.”

On May 16, the administration of Kolomenskoye Park reported the act of vandalism to the police and they are working together to investigate the crime. Gwiddon says this is a much better response than what happened after the stones were vandalized in 2012.

Police and park officials are presently investigating, but have not made any arrests. The maximum punishment for mishandling the stones is an administrative fine of the equivalent of $100, unless vandalism is proven. Vandalism, in Russia, carries a prison sentence of up to three years.

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.

A young Nepalese girl dressed as a Kumari/living goddess. Photo: Narendra Shrestha.

A young Nepalese girl dressed as a Kumari/living goddess. Photo: Narendra Shrestha.

  • Does the presence of goddesses within a faith mean better treatment for women within a culture? A Guardian article complicates the notion. Quote: “Goddesses are worshipped merely as a ritual but in reality, women are generally never seen as their earthly representations,” [Usha Vishwakarma] says. “It is not inspiration or motivation that we look for. Sheer frustration from being ill-treated by men and unsympathetic responses from family drive us to rebel and make conditions better for ourselves.”
  • Scholar Wendy Doniger says India banning her book “The Hindus: An Alternative History” had her “in high spirits.” Quote: “But I must apologize for what may amount to false advertising on my behalf by Mr. Batra, who pronounced my book ‘filthy and dirty.’ Readers who bought a copy in hope of finding such passages will be, I fear, disappointed. ‘The Hindus’ isn’t about sex at all. It’s about religion, which is much hotter than sex.”
  • At HuffPo, Parth Parihar discusses “Hinduism and the eco-activist vacuum.” Quote: “What could be more adharmic than incentivizing the creation of fossil fuel infrastructure that only makes oil a more economically viable means of energy production, thereby impeding progress on combating global climate change?”
  • The head of the British Veterinary Association is advocating that animals slaughtered in Kosher and Halal butchering be stunned first, spurring charges of misinformation and limiting religious rights. Quote: “But Mr Arkush, who is the vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said the Jewish slaughtering practice was a ‘humane act designed to bring about the animals’ end very quickly’. He said that Mr Blackwell’s remarks were ‘completely misleading’ and criticised him for ‘speaking in a way that inflamed prejudice’.”
  • The Straight Dope covers the topic of penis-stealing sorcerers. Quote: “The result of this delusional drama can be pretty ugly. About 20 witches accused of penis theft were lynched in Nigeria in 2001, and 12 in Ghana in 2002. One survey counted 56 separate cases between 1997 and 2003, with at least 36 suspected thieves murdered. In a 2008 outbreak in Congo, urgent messages went out by radio to avoid strangers wearing gold rings in taxis, leading police to put 13 suspected sorcerers into protective custody to prevent lynchings.”
  • Tablet Magazine explores the forbidden books of Jewish magic. Quote: “If most historical Judaisms have taken a transcendental approach to the magic taboo, the transgression-consummation dyad accounts for the simultaneous attraction and repulsion to magic one finds in so many Jewish sources. The highly charged polarity is responsible for producing myriad expressions of anxiety, the tracing of which may shed light on familiar facets of Jewish culture. The binary status of magic gave rise to contested formulations of its cultural position among rabbinic authorities. Was magic the most profound degradation of the spirit, or the highest actualization of human potential?”
  • Police in Siberia managed to stop an attempted witch-burning before it was too late. Quote: “In an unexpected incident worthy of the Spanish inquisition, a couple in eastern Siberia decided their acquaintance was a witch and attempted to burn her alive, though police stopped the impromptu auto-da-fe. The rescue came not a moment too soon, as the couple were at that moment forcing the alleged witch headfirst into a burning stove in an abandoned building, Zabaikalsky Region police said Thursday.”
  • From the “what could possibly go wrong” files, Oklahoma House passes “Merry Christmas” bill that would protect using religious expressions in public schools. Quote: “There is a war on Christians and Christmas, and anyone who would deny that is not paying close enough attention,” Cleveland said in a December 2013 press release. “This bill will create a layer of protection for our public school teachers and staff to freely discuss and celebrate Christmas without worrying about offending someone.” Don’t worry though, the proposed law calls for Christianity to share the stage with at least ONE other faith and/or secular expression. Diversity!
  • A new book from a 20-year devotee alleges widespread corruption, nepotism, and abuse in the empire of “Hugging Saint” Mata “Amma” Amrithanandamayi. Quote: “An Australian woman, who served Mata Amrithanandamayi for two decades, has exposed in her memoir the “hugging saint’s” ashram as a murky world of physical, sexual and mental torture, promiscuity power-madness and intolerance.” The organization’s response? She’s crazy and depressed (no, really, that’s their response).
  • Slate.com mentions Santeria and Vodou elements in the hit HBO show “True Detective.” Quote: “Voodoo and Santeria have long inspired the authors who dabbled in cosmic horror. Louisiana Voodoo (otherwise known as “Hoodoo”), which draws upon African and European folk traditions alike, derives much of its occult resonance from such practices as vengeance by proxy (voodoo dolls), suspended animation (zombification), and gris-gris (talismans, not unlike the knocked-together fetish sculptures that Hart and Cohle discover at the scene of Dora Lange’s murder). The particular appeal of Louisiana Voodoo to cosmic-horror writers like Lovecraft and those who have followed in his footsteps comes not only from its supernaturalism, but from its cultural otherness as well.”

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.

On Tuesday, May 21, the Russian Federation’s State Duma overwhelmingly approved the second reading of the controversial “anti-blasphemy” legislation.  In the revised edition, the law would make it illegal to “intentionally or to publicly offend religious sensibilities” or “desecrate religious sites and paraphernalia.”  The former is punishable by a one-year prison sentence and the latter up to three. The Duma will hear a third and final reading in the next week.  If approved, it goes to President Putin for a final signature.

Although the second reading was passed with a landslide vote of 304 to 4, the proposed law has caused considerable controversy. Proponents, like United Russia party member Mikhail Markelov, stress that the law is necessary to protect the religious freedom and only “punish public acts that obviously go out of their way to insult a religion.”

However, opponents are not convinced. Fair Russia party member Sergey Mironov said “We are still not sure that it can be stretched to indict many Russians, even those who did not set out to offend anyone.”  Legal adviser Henry Reznik called the law “legally meaningless” or “rubber band.”  It could stretch to meet the needs of those in power.  Human Rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva  called it “another repressive law.”

A recently released report by the United States state department supports the opponents’ fears, noting that in other countries “the laws are frequently used to repress dissent, to harass political opponents, and to settle personal vendettas.” (Myers, The New York Times, May 20, 2013)  The Russian Foreign Ministry publicly dismissed the U.S. report’s claims.

The Russian “anti-blasphemy” legislation was born out of the 2012 arrest of the activist/punk band Pussy Riot.  Their story was featured on March 24 2013 on CBS’ 60 Minutes.

In summary, five members of Pussy Riot entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, stood up on the pulpit, and performed a punk-style hymn that prayed for the overthrow of Vladamir Putin. Three of the women were arrested, charged with “hooliganism” and given a two year sentence. One has since been released and the other two remain in jail today.

When the women were detained, the State struggled to find a law by which to charge them.  After digging up the “hooligan” charge, Putin’s administration felt that Russia needed better laws to deal with religion-specific cases. Currently, there are no punishments written into the Criminal Code to handle such situations.

Russians have had a long history of cultural and political secularism. Under Soviet rule, religious practice was significantly suppressed – even the Russian Orthodoxy. In the late 1980s, Gorbachev relaxed that strangle-hold and many citizens had hopes of experiencing greater spiritual freedom.

Geraldine Fagan

Geraldine Fagan

However, Russia retained that strong sense of secular nationalism.  As journalist Geraldine Fagan tells The Economist, 80-90% of the current Russian population identifies as Russian Orthodox but only 2-3% actually attend Church. Many identify out of loyalty to Russian culture, country and tradition rather than out of any honest expression of religiosity.

Russia’s relationship with religion has indeed shifted but not necessarily in the way predicted. Fagan said:

[the] hopes that the end of Communism would herald an era of religious freedom in Russia were short-lived.  [Today] Religious minorities face a tough lot.

The four majority religions are Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. Any religious organizations that affiliate with these faiths can register for state benefits and protections if they meet a set of criteria.  For example, the organization must be in existence for a set period of time and not have distinct western origins.  Organizations over 100 years old qualify as part of Russian heritage.

If such an organization lies outside of the major religions, the group must undergo evaluation by a public, non-profit state-selected panel of experts comprised mostly of conservative Russian Orthodox practitioners. Gwiddon, the National Coordinator for the Pagan Federation International –  Russia explains:

There is no way to appeal a ruling or to present a defense. Quite often, the panel experts have very limited knowledge of the religion they’re discussing and use clerical rhetoric and the Bible, as the reasoning behind their decisions. 

Although not speaking about Paganism, Geraldine Fagan echoes the same concerns for all minority faiths in Russia. The current trends in religious law appear to favor the political and social position of the Russian Orthodox Church. As Fagan suggests, it’s more an expression of Russian nationalism than spiritualism.

pf_web1

What does all this mean for Russian Pagans? As noted by Gwiddon, the Russian Pagan community, a very diverse community itself, is rarely a target for bigotry and harassment. He remarked:

Most Russians never think about Paganism, apart, perhaps from reading a few juicy stories about skinny-dipping on Kupalo night… The perception of most people of paganism is rather positive. They view it as a form of folk tradition, village customs, etc. … Upon hearing about paganism the majority of Russians tend to shrug it off and say “okay, whatever floats your boat”.  [Although] there is a tiny minority of fundamentalist Christian activists, who actively tried campaigning against pagans, but their efforts always end up in failure.

Are Pagans concerned that they may lose that relatively comfortable social position if the anti-blasphemy laws pass and cause the predictable rise in religious tension?  Or, could these new laws strengthen their ability to fight those rare cases of discrimination?  The Pagan Federation International – Russia has been closely following the case. Gwiddon says that most Pagans believe the law to be a mixed blessing:

This proposed bill will not change much either in the perception of Paganism in the public’s eye, nor in the attitude of Pagans towards the society. No one is going to go back into the closet, on the contrary, there are some Pagans, who feel, that this is a good opportunity to claim protection of pagan beliefs and practices…

[The situation is complex.]  One positive [result coming out of] this new bill is that several pagan organizations decided to officially register with the local authorities in order to enable the creation of a state-registered religious organizations some time down the road.  If a Pagan belongs to a registered religious group, it will be more difficult for the authorities to argue that their beliefs are not a religion. Moscow House of Wiccans, a public Wiccan group in Moscow, recently filed notices of registration with Moscow authorities, for example.  

[In general] Pagans are not thrilled about the new bill since the existing legislation covers any actual damages against persons and property quite well.  [But] Pagans are taking a wait-and-see approach as to how this legislation is going to be used. [They] do not see the bill as a significant threat. Things will stay pretty much as they are, although it may become more difficult to offer constructive criticism of the Church.

300px-Christ_the_Savior_Cathedral_Moscow

Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow

The current Russian administration is following in a long history of heralding Russian tradition and culture above all. In that light, supporting the Russian Orthodox Church is no different than the support given to any Russian folk tradition – even those of a magickal nature. If used responsibly, these “anti-blasphemy” laws could open the door to a greater recognition of religion and spirituality in Russian life. Pagans could benefit from its protection. However, at the same time, the Russian Federation could be dangerously close to blurring the lines between religion and government. Moreover, if the Church does become more powerful, will there be a steady increase in religious discrimination against non-Christians – in particularly Russian Pagans?

As Gwiddon said, we can only wait and see.

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.

"Psychostasia" by Daemonia Nymphe

“Psychostasia” by Daemonia Nymphe

  • The great Greek Pagan band Daemonia Nymphe have announced that their new album, “Psychostasia,” will be officially released on May 10th.  Quote: “Six years after ‘Krataia Asterope’ (2007) and many Live dates in Europe, the Greeks led by the duet Spyros Giasafakis & Evi Stergiou are back with their new album ‘Psychostasia’ (the “weighing” of souls by Gods). Since its origins the band uses instruments recreated from the Greek Antiquity […] ‘Psychostasia’ takes us into the journey of a Life, the journey of a Soul. It starts with Zephiros (the god of Wind), then comes ‘Pnoe’ the breath that animates each thing … During the trip, we will meet Gaia, the forces of Nature, the moon dances for Selene and Eros, to finish into Hypnos’s dreams.” You can order and hear samples of the new album at Prikosnovenie.
  • The reality television program “Wife Swap” aired another episode featuring a Pagan family last night, but according to participant Arana Fireheart, the process from his standpoint was not exploitive. Quote: “[The casting director] reassured me that we would be given the chance to present ourselves as a normal happy family that just happen to be Witches and I trusted that he would keep his word.” So did anyone watch it? How was it? Let us know in the comments. I think it’s fair to say that the show hasn’t the best track record regarding Pagan families, so I’m interested to see if things have evolved
  • Stonehenge is looking for a part-time Solstice manager, which has gotten a bit of press attention. One of the qualifications is an ability to maintain good relations with Druid groups and other “stakeholders” who access the stones for special events. Quote: “As English Heritage’s Tim Reeve told the BBC, one of the General Manager’s subsidiary jobs will be to liaise with neo-druid leaders, helping to oversee arrangements for the ceremonies that those leaders conduct to celebrate the summer and winter solstices. The General Manager will work to guarantee, essentially, that the rocks of the 21st century remain as faithful as possible to the rocks of prehistory. It’s ‘important,’ Reeve notes, ‘to ensure we keep the dignity of the stones.'” You guys are lucky I’m not a UK citizen, or I’d have this thing locked up. 
  • A retired Russian Orthodox bishop has been deposed after it was revealed that he was giving psychic counseling at a New Age center in Russia. It seems a fair cop. The Orthodox news site that reported on the incident is in English, but the lingo, acronyms, and haughty triumphalism make it nearly indecipherable to the casual reader (I suppose some could argue the same about my site, though I try to remain accessible). 
  • This story is supposed to be satire, but I can actually imagine certain Heathens saying something like what’s quoted in the “article.” Quote: “It’s an insult to our religion, it is bad enough they turned our God of Thunder into a blond pretty boy in a unitard, but the lack of bloodshed makes a mockery of our beliefs.” You laugh now, just wait until they turn The Morrigan into a superhero character… oh, wait.
Photo: Time Magazine / EFE / ZUMAPRESS

Photo: Time Magazine / EFE / ZUMAPRESS

  • In a move that should surprise no one, the Vatican has made it clear that they really, really, don’t like Santa Muerte. Quote: “The Mexican offensive against Santa Muerte (Saint Death) launched by former president, Felipe Calderon, has now gone global. In an interview last week with a Peruvian Catholic news site (Aciprensa), the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, condemned the cult of the skeleton saint as “sinister and infernal.” The Italian prelate, whom Vatican watcher John Allen recently called “the most interesting man in the Church” and even profiled as a candidate for the papacy, called for both Church and society to mobilize against devotion to Saint Death.” Chances that this will hinder the religious movement? I’d wager they are slim to none. 
  • The interfaith ceremony that took place after the Boston bombing attack excluded humanists and atheists. Quote: “We made it exceedingly easy for the Governor’s staff to find us and include us, but they chose not to do so. The exclusion of non-theists today no doubt deepened the hurt the people in the non-theist community are feeling. What principle was served by our exclusion, I don’t begin to understand.”
  • Come visit scenic Cornwall, we’ve got a really, really, big Celtic Cross. Quote: “We hope it will become an iconic landmark, our version of the Angel of the North, so people don’t just pass by Saltash, but go in.” Also, King Arthur was conceived there, but that’s not exactly a roadside attraction. 
  • Speaking of Stonehenge, here’s a new theory about it. Quote: “…the site, which was occupied continuously for 3,000 years, had evidence of burning, thousands of flint tool fragments and bones of wild aurochs, a type of extinct giant cow. That suggests the area near Stonehenge may have been an auroch migration route that became an ancient feasting site, drawing people together from across different cultures in the region, wrote lead researcher David Jacques of the Open University in the United Kingdom.”
  • My pal Cara Schulz (who also happens to be a Hellenic Pagan), is holding a Kickstarter for a cool-sounding luxury camping book, and in honor of reaching $1,500 of the $4,500 goal she shares a drink recipe on Youtube called the “Blue Gem.” With Summer festival season almost here, maybe we could all use this book? 

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.