Archives For Santa Muerte

Last week, two individuals charged with firearm and drug trafficking charges had their convictions overturned on appeal thanks to authorities using their devotion to the Mexican folk-saint Santa Muerte to “taint” proceedings. In the decision handed down by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, the court blasted using the expert testimony of U.S. Marshall Robert Almonte, who government prosecutors described as a “cultural iconography hobbyist.”

Photo: Time Magazine / EFE / ZUMAPRESS

Photo: Time Magazine / EFE / ZUMAPRESS

“Missing from the district court’s discussion of Almonte’s qualifications is any discussion of how his Santa Muerte testimony could legitimately connect Medina’s prayer to drug trafficking. There is no evidence that Santa Muerte iconography is ‘associational,’ nor was there any allegation that the ‘main purpose’ of Santa Muerte veneration ‘was to traffic in’ narcotics. Cf. id. at 1562, 1563. Almonte testified that there may be ‘millions’ of followers of Santa Muerte, but he proffered no manner of distinguishing individuals who pray to Santa Muerte for illicit purposes from everyone else. His data comes from his work as a narcotics detective and his compilation of ‘several cases from law enforcement officers throughout the United States where these items have been involved in drug trafficking and other criminal activity.’ Mere observation that a correlation exists—especially when the observer is a law enforcement officer likely to encounter a biased sample—does not meaningfully assist the jury in  determining guilt or innocence.”

The decision went on to note that describing Santa Muerte as a “tool” of the drug trade was, legally speaking, a bit of a reach on the part of prosecution.

“The government’s inability at every stage of litigation to explain precisely how Santa Muerte can be “used” elucidates the poor fit between our ‘tools of the trade’ jurisprudence and Almonte’s purported area of expertise. It also highlights that further inquiry by the district court would have revealed that Almonte’s testimony would not properly ‘help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.'”

In short, mere devotion to Santa Muerte is not probable cause, and can’t be used to tie someone to the drug trade. On reading the decision Dr. Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies and author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” tweeted that this was a “big blow” to self-appointed hobbyist experts within law enforcement.

Chesnut went on to tell the Associated Press that “Santa Muerte has been used as evidence and used as probable cause in some cases, but she is not just a narco saint, and many of her devotees aren’t involved in criminal behavior.” Chesnut has long advocated against law enforcement trusting the testimony of self-appointed experts on this often misunderstood religious movement, and has written in-depth about Santa Muerte and other folk-saints for Huffington Post.

So what does this ruling mean? It means that the two accused in this case will get a new trial, one that will leave out testimony regarding Santa Muerte, and it is also a huge blow against the liberal use of self-made occult and “cult” experts in criminal trials. This is very good news for anyone who practices a misunderstood minority religion in the United States. It is easy to scare a jury with tales of strange belief systems, when the focus should be on presentation of material evidence in a particular case.

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.

Richard Ramirez

Richard Ramirez

The Great Serpent Mound

The Great Serpent Mound

  • Indian Country Today reports on how New Age woo demeans and threatens The Great Serpent Mound in Ohio. Quote: “Kenny Frost a Southern Ute citizen, has worked to protect sacred places for more than 20 years. He is a well-respected authority on Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act issues and law and frequently consults with state, federal and tribal governments. ‘The protection put down by Native people at sacred sites is still there. Non-Native people dig around and see what they can find; they may end up opening a Pandora’s box without knowing how to put spirits back,’ he notes.” 
  • “Sorry Pagans,” that’s what Baylor history professor Philip Jenkins says as he engages in the hoary exercise of telling Pagans about how stuff they thought was pagan was actually, totally, not. Quote: “In reality, it is very hard indeed to excavate through those medieval Christian layers to find Europe’s pagan roots. Never underestimate just how thoroughly and totally the Christian church penetrated the European mind.” So why even bother, am I right? I know this is a popular topic for columnists looking for material, but we aren’t ignorant of the scholarship, and cherry-picking two (popular) examples isn’t going to embarrass us back to church. You’d be surprised at how well-versed some of us are in history. 
  • Religion Clause reports that a judge has allowed a gangster’s  Santa Muerte necklace to remain as evidence during the penalty phase of the trial (for which the defendant was found guilty of murder). Quote: “The court held that appellant had failed to object on any 1st Amendment religious ground to introduction of the evidence.” Further, the judge says they may have allowed it even if the defendant has objected earlier in the case noting the faith’s ties to narco-trafficking. Could this ruling lead to a problematic precedent? I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.
  • Christians opposed to same-sex marriage know that the battle is lost. Quote: “Just 22% of white evangelical Protestants favor same-sex marriage, but about three times that percentage (70%) thinks legal recognition for gay marriage is inevitable. Among other religious groups, there are smaller differences in underlying opinions about gay marriage and views of whether it is inevitable.” I think that means marriage equality has won, don’t you? Now to undo 50 years of legislative hysteria.
  • Speaking of marriage equality, it’s very, very “pagan.” Quote: “As to the future of America – and the collapse of this once-Christian nation – Christians must not only be allowed to have opinions, but politically, Christians must be retrained to war for the Soul of America and quit believing the fabricated whopper of the “Separation of Church and State,” the lie repeated ad nauseum by the left and liberals to keep Christian America – the moral majority – from imposing moral government on pagan public schools, pagan higher learning and pagan media. Bill Bennett’s insight, “… the two essential questions Plato posed as: Who teaches the children, and what do we teach them?” requires deep thought, soul-searching and a response from Christian America to the secular, politically correct and multicultural false gods imposing their religion on America’s children.” That’s David Lane, one of Rand Paul’s point men in improving his relations with evangelical Christians. I’ll spare you the Dragnet P.A.G.A.N. reference.
  • “Occult,” a new television series in development for A&E, follows the exploits of an “occult crime task force.” Quote: “‘Occult’ revolves around Dolan, an FBI agent who has returned from administrative leave after going off the deep end while investigating his wife’s disappearance. Eager to be back on the job, he is paired with an agent with her own complicated back story who specializes in the occult. Together, they will solve cases for the newly formed occult crimes task force.” Whether the show actually gets on the air is still an open question. If it does, we can start a betting pool for when Wiccans, Druids, and Asatru are mentioned in the series.
  • Frank Lautenberg, the Democratic Senator from New Jersey who passed away recently, took an active role in combatting the revisionist Christian history of David Barton. Quote: “I want those who hear me across America to pay attention: ‘Christian heritage is at risk.’ That means that all the outsiders, all of those who approach God differently but are people who believe in a supreme being; people who behave and live peacefully with their neighbors and their friends. No, this is being put forward as an attempt — a not too subtle attempt — to make sure people understand that America is a Christian country. Therefore, we ought to take the time the majority leader offers us, as Members of the Senate, for a chance to learn more about how invalid the principle of separation between church and state is. I hope the American public sees this plan as the spurious attempt it is.” For why David Barton is infamous among Pagans, check out my previous reporting on his antics. 
  • Finally, here’s some pictures from the Pagan Picnic in St. Louis!

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.

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.

(Credit: Wikimedia/DarkGeometryStudios via Shutterstock/Salon)

(Credit: Wikimedia/DarkGeometryStudios via Shutterstock/Salon)

  • Let’s start off with Salon.com’s follow-up to the outing of rogue Wikipedia editor “Qworty,” which focuses on his strange vendetta against Pagan, esoteric, and occult pages. In the piece Andrew Leonard links to my run-down of the story, and manages to dig up some new information as well. Quote: “Every page deleted or altered by Young on grounds of self-promotion or conflict-of-interest clearly deserves a second look. And that great effort is already well under way. The Neo-Pagans are clamoring for the return of some of their deleted pages and scouring those that survived the purge to see which of Young’s cuts will be reverted. But Young didn’t confine himself to questions of notability or conflict-of-interest when tangling with the Pagans; he also challenged the basic tenets of Pagan spirituality. Wikipedia, he argued, should be debunking such things as Wiccan rituals or the exploration of drug-induced conciousness-raising, rather than reporting them.” This experience has left some Pagan Wikipedia editors disillusioned, to put it lightly. It will be interesting to see how things progress from this point. 
  • The branding of children as “witches” by pastors in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues. The BBC has a new documentary where a British citizen who was born in the DRC finds out her cousin has been accused of witchcraft and races to find her. Quote: “Journeying from her home in London to her birthplace in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kevani tries to discover how ancient traditions have been hijacked in the name of Jesus, why families are singling out vulnerable children and hurting them and why toddlers are having to endure excruciating rituals in order to ‘rid them of demons’.” It should be noted that branding children as witches is illegal in the Congo now, but the pastors seem unconcerned.
  • The book “Ritual” by David Pinner, which inspired the 1973 film “The Wicker Man” is going to be getting a sequel. Pinner told Rue Morgue Magazine that he’s written a book set 30 years later entitled “The Wicca Woman.” Quote: “I’ve just completed the sequel to Ritual, after all these years, called The Wicca Womanthe children who are in Ritual are grown up in this. It’s set 30 years later just before the millennium. Wicker Man obsessives will no doubt want to keep an eye out for this one. Meanwhile, StudioCanal continues its hunt for lost footage from the 1973 film’s original cut in hopes of releasing a complete anniversary edition. 
  • Christianity in Britain could be declining faster than originally thought according to a new analysis of the 2011 UK census data. Quote: “A new analysis of the 2011 census shows that a decade of mass immigration helped mask the scale of decline in Christian affiliation among the British-born population – while driving a dramatic increase in Islam, particularly among the young. It suggests that only a minority of people will describe themselves as Christians within the next decade, for first time.” We may see a truly post-Christian Britain in our lifetimes. That new analysis is from the UK’s Office for National Statistics, by the way. 
  • John Macintyre, former president of the Scottish Pagan Federation, is interviewed by Patheos.com about the importance of Pagan involvement in interfaith. Quote: “Interfaith is not a threat, it doesn’t aim to change what Paganism is, still less to merge it into some kind of ‘one size fits all’ universal religion. It allows us to educate other faith groups and the wider society about the reality of modern Paganism, to challenge prejudice and negative stereotyping close to its sources, and to make a positive contribution as one of the many faith communities that make up our society.”
Santa Muerte

Santa Muerte

  • Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” writes about the Vatican’s ongoing battle with the cult of Santa Muerte. Quote: “In addition to theological objections, the current religious economy of Mexico and Latin America provides a compelling explanation not only for the condemnation of narco-saints but also for other dynamic religious competitors. For the past three decades both national bishops’ conferences and the Vatican have inveighed against the “invasion of the sects” in Latin America. Of course, Pentecostals, the most vibrant of the Church’s competitors, have been the primary object of condemnation, but Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, New Age groups and Spiritists have also been singled out.” 
  • PNC-Minnesota has an update on Pagan-initiated tornado relief efforts in Oklahoma. Quote: “As of Saturday, Solar Cross has collected $545 in donations and was able to send 400 N95 rated respirators, 58 pairs of work gloves, 50 safety goggles, 20 tarps, and 10 shovels. Tillison said, ‘Thank you thank you thank you! Your donations will be distributed within 24 hours of the time they arrive and sent out to Little Axe, Newcastle and the outlying areas that are not receiving the outpouring the greater area of Moore is.'” You can read my initial report on this, here.
  • When talking about legal protections, “who’s a journalist” is the wrong question. Quote: “When considering whether to grant legal protection for the gathering and dissemination of information, the question should not be the person performing those acts, i.e., “who is a journalist?,” but “is this an act of journalism?” Before the user-generated content revolution, focusing on journalists (i.e., people defined by their institutional affiliations) served as a functional if rough approximation of the true interests at stake (i.e., debate on issues of public concern). That is no longer the case.” This issue is an important one for all us Pagan media types who are not affiliated with a recognized institution. 
  • Paul Louis Metzger argues that sometimes Christians create the “idols” for modern Pagans out of ignorance of our actual beliefs and practices. Quote: “We Christians need to be on guard in our understanding of such movements as contemporary Paganism. We tend to lump all of modern Paganism into one general and distorted category. We often fail to account for the vast complexity within the movement and articulate Paganism accurately. For all our concern about pagan idolatry, we may be guilty at times of making their idols for them. We need to develop the practice of respect for understanding their practices, rituals, and beliefs.”
  • Wiccan love spells: sometimes they (kinda) work (at least for awhile). Quote: “Yes, I shed a few tears, but not because I was in love with him. I cried because the spell hadn’t worked, at least not all the way, and I was now forced to revert to being a Party of One after having had a brief, haunting reminder of the cozier aspects of being in a relationship.”

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.

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.

This past Friday I linked to a story, and subsequent follow-ups, concerning a Santa Muerte statue placed in a cemetery in San Benito, Texas. The San Benito News went to Dr. Antonio N. Zavaleta, whom they called a “renowned expert on the occult,” for context and he said that the statue was “probably a spell to harm or kill someone.”  This prompted a response from Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” who said that there was no evidence that this statue was placed there to harm or kill anyone. Ultimately, someone went and destroyed the statue before authorities could remove it, and I dinged the reporters for going with the “death spell” angle without seeking alternate perspectives. 

Seen on Wednesday is all that remains of the controversial Santa Muerte statue located at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery. (Photo: San Benito News)

All that remains of the controversial Santa Muerte statue located at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery. (Photo: San Benito News)

“I think there’s a lesson here, primarily for the journalists who went with the “death spell” angle without finding a second opinion.”

Since then, San Benito News Managing Editor Michael Rodriguez has publicly and privately defended his paper’s coverage, sending The Wild Hunt (and I assume others) an explanation for why they only got one source, and why he trusted Dr. Zavaleta’s input. Quote: “If there are those who would discredit Dr. Zavaleta’s conclusions based on his religious practice, then by the same token I should dismiss their remarks as biased [...] the original article was not an attempt to spark an argument about religious freedoms but merely to present the concerns of a community, the actions of a city administration in response to such concerns, and the opinion of a doctor/professor/published author with expertise in this field.”

The paper then went on to do the right thing (in my opinion) and interview both Dr. Zavaleta and Dr. Chesnut about the statue, its purpose, and how it should have been dealt with.

Dr. Chestnut: The destruction of the statue was most likely perpetrated by an individual or group who had seen the media coverage featuring a local anthropologist who asserted that the effigy had been placed in the cemetery as part of a black magic hex intended to kill someone. I seriously doubt that it was the owner of the statue who destroyed it, but without the presence of cameras in the cemetery we can’t be certain. I imagine the perpetrator(s) smashed the effigy instead of burning it because they were in a hurry. You would need to ask the anthropologist why he specifically recommended burning the image, but I would imagine he did because of the historical use of fire in Christianity as an agent of destructive purification. The Spanish Inquisition, for example, had “heretics” and “witches” burned at the stake on a regular basis.

Dr. Zavaleta: There are no accidents or haphazard events in this world of U.S.-Mexico witchcraft (brujeria). Therefore the statue was placed in the cemetery deliberately and for a specific act of witchcraft. I doubt that its destruction could ever be a random act. First of all it was not committed by the person who put it there in the first place. That is out of the question. Secondly, no passerby destroyed it either. The most probable explanation for its destruction is by a person of religious faith who felt it so offensive that they had to take action. Within the context of the believer, the fact that the statue was not burned but broken up does not in any way negate the effect, in other words it’s still active. Just as it was created ritually it would have to be destroyed by fire ritually in order to nullify its intended effect.”

At this point I’d like to add a few things, first, I’d like to commend Michael Rodriguez for actually being responsive and communicating with me privately, and for posting an explanation/defense of his paper’s reporting. I don’t necessarily agree with his reasoning, or his conclusions, but I admire the fact that he took our concerns seriously enough to respond. Most papers don’t bother, and being accountable to your audience is good journalism. Secondly, I’d like to talk briefly about Dr. Zavaleta and “renowned” occult experts.

I don’t doubt that Dr. Zavaleta is well-educated, nor do I doubt that he’s made a study of Brujeria. Let’s accept that right off that bat. However, when I read that someone is a “renowned expert on the occult” and that he has, quote, “aided authorities from all over the country in identifying and understanding ritualistic crimes,” alarm bells go off. First off, most “occult experts” aren’t actually experts in all forms of the occult (a broad term indeed), and many of them have a religio-political agenda. Our community (and many of our allies) have had years of trouble from “occult experts” who misrepresent occult beliefs, and Pagan faiths, viewing everything through a single lens of interpretation. Often, this lens will be informed by a conservative Christian worldview, and driven by a sensationalist idea of what “magic” and “ritual” are. One “occult expert” helped put three innocent teenagers in prison for nearly twenty years.

Finally, Dr. Zavaleta wasn’t simply acting as a scholar, offering conjecture based on his research. He made assertions that came from his role as an “occult expert” and that should have set off red flags for any journalist covering minority religions in America, especially minority religions that utilize magic.

“Someone, a man or woman, is doing witchcraft for pay,” Zavaleta said. “Somebody has paid the witch; they don’t do it for free and it (witchcraft) could easily go for a couple thousand dollars. So it definitely needs to be removed. The city should remove it, and that should be the end of it.” Actually, Zavaleta said the best course of action may even be to burn the sculpture.

Scholars don’t tell you to burn a sculpture, they don’t make definitive statements about the origin of the statue without verifying it. “Occult experts” with agendas do that. This is why I think the initial story needed more than one perspective, and why I’m glad they went and published a follow-up.

The Wild Hunt is partially an exercise in advocacy journalism. I make no bones about the fact that I have a pro-Pagan point of view, but papers that want to service an entire town, or city, can’t afford such a bias. This time, the assertions about “death spells” led someone to smash the Santa Muerte statue instead of letting the authorities deal with it, but next time it could lead to something worse. It could lead to accusations towards a community member, it could lead to mistrust and fear, and it could lead to the wrong people getting accused of a crime. So I hope the next time something ritualistic, something outside the ordinary happens, local journalists reach further afield for everyone’s sake.

ADDENDUM: Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut weighs in on this story at The Huffington Post. Quote: “Given the depiction of the folk saint by the media, at times reinforced by my fellow academics, it is not surprising that the presence of her Grim Reapress image in the cemetery quickly ignited a firestorm of controversy. For those in San Benito who already viewed the Bony Lady (one of her common monikers) as malevolent the unsubstantiated allegation of murderous sorcery made by a well-known anthropologist in the region simply reinforced their opinion and apparently emboldened at least one to deliver a mortal blow to Saint Death in the graveyard.”

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.

An invocation is offered by Indra Neelameggham of Utah's Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple at the beginning of the Jan. 7 inauguration ceremonies for Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell inside the rotunda of the Utah Capitol. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

An invocation is offered by Indra Neelameggham of Utah’s Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple at the beginning of the Jan. 7 inauguration ceremonies for Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell inside the rotunda of the Utah Capitol. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

  • Deseret News reports on Indra Neelameggham, the first Hindu (and first woman) to ever give an opening invocation at a Utah governor’s inauguration. Quote:  “It is a prayer for peace, happiness, harmony and contentment, Sen. (Orrin) Hatch and (former) Gov. (Jon M.) Huntsman both told me after the ceremony that they thought my prayer was inspiring, so I guess it went pretty well [...]  So many people believe that in Utah we are just a Mormon community,” she said. “Certainly that is the predominant religion, but we are so much more than just that. And I think they wanted someone to represent that diversity.” Neelameggham is a member of the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple of Utah, and a pivotal figure in Utah’s Hindu community.
  • So remember last week when I reported on a theistic Satanic group in Florida (The Satanic Temple) that’s planning to hold a rally on January 25th in solidarity with Gov. Rick Scott’s support of a school “inspirational messages” law? At the time I said that “I have no idea if this is serious, or if someone is engaging in some next-level trolling.”Well, it turns out it was the latter:  “[Lucien] Greaves is listed as the casting director of a feature film called …wait for it…The Satanic Temple. [...] The casting call said the movie was a mockumentary about the “nicest Satanic Cult in the world.” It was seeking actors for eight speaking roles “to play minions” and 10 featured extras.” So there you go.  It’s a would-be mockumentary.
  • The U.S. Forest Service has found a relationship between the loss of trees and a downturn in human health and life expectancy.  Quote: “The “relationship between trees and human health,” as they put it, is convincingly strong. They controlled for as many other demographic factors as possible. And yet, they are unable to satisfactorily explain why this might be so [...] there is something fascinatingly mysterious about the entanglement of our health with that of nature. The suspicion that this may be so, of course, is seen well outside of the scientific literature on the topic [...] Henry David Thoreau, writing in The Atlantic in June 1862, said, ‘I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.'”
  • John Beckett, a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) and Vice President of CUUPS National, has joined the Patheos Pagan Portal as a blogger. Quote: “This blog is part of my spiritual journey. Sometimes I write about what’s going on in my life. Sometimes I write about what’s in the news or what’s abuzz on the Pagan internet. There are some recurring themes: the nature of the Universe, the origins of religion, developing relationships with the spirits of nature, with our ancestors, and with our gods and goddesses. Spiritual growth. Magic. Building vibrant religious communities. And perhaps most importantly, how to combine all that into a spiritual practice that builds a better world here and now.” Congratulations to John, Patheos is lucky to have you.
  • Radio Netherlands profiles 18-year-old Adrien Adandé of Benin, a High School student by day, and a Vodun priest by night. Quote:  “As soon as he gets home from school, 18-year-old Adrien Adandé slips out of his high school uniform and into his voodoo priest robes. A large crowd is already queuing outside for consultations. Adandé took over the practice from his father, who initiated him into the Voodoo rites before his death. ‘As a child, I was my father’s only son who was interested in what he was doing at the convent,’ the teenager recalls. ‘Along the way, he taught me things and showed me the secrets.'” It’s an interesting piece, featuring several perspectives on Vodun in Benin.
  • The Telegraph in India check in with  Ipsita Roy Chakraverti, India’s most famous Wiccan. Quote: “Draped in a black cloak, Chakraverti put 70-odd students of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, under a spell on January 9 as she spoke about ghosts and planchettes and decoded Wiccan symbols. “Black is a witch’s favourite colour. It stands for enigma and dignity in Wicca. The broom signifies a woman being liberated from household activities and flying away in search of identity. The conical hat is a symbol of concentration and free-flowing thought,” she explained.”
  • Think Africa Press notes that blaming traditional African belief systems for witchcraft-related crimes and persecutions ignores that most of these harmful and violent manifestations are modern inventions, and that Pentecostal and evangelical churches have had a large influence in their development. Quote: “Today’s witchcraft beliefs and practices are as much products of modern dynamics as they are informed by long-standing tradition. Witchcraft beliefs are not remnants of ‘pre-modern’ cultures but contemporary phenomena embedded in, and partly constituted by, specific and current cultural and socio-economic contexts.”
Seen on Wednesday is all that remains of the controversial Santa Muerte statue located at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery. (Photo: San Benito News)

The remains of a controversial Santa Muerte statue located at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery. (Photo: San Benito News)

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.

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

Santa Muerte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have some updates on recent stories covered here at The Wild Hunt.

Phoenix Goddess Temple Arrests: Since my report on Thursday, this story has hit the national and international newswires. It is now revealed that charges include prostitution, pandering, and conspiracy. Most reports I’ve read seem pretty confident that this was nothing but a brothel with a veneer of spirituality painted on as a legal smokescreen. I’ve never seen so many scare quotes being used in a mainstream newswire report before.

Phoenix Goddess Temple members. Photo by Jamie Peachey.

“During a Wednesday search of the Phoenix temple and two church-related sites in nearby Sedona, police seized evidence showing that “male and female ‘practitioners’ working at the Temple were performing sexual acts in exchange for monetary ‘donations,’ all on the pretense of providing ‘neo tantric’ healing therapies,” Phoenix police said.”

We’ve also learned more about the raids on the affiliated Sedona Temple, and the undercover operations that were underway for six months. In addition, some of those arrested have spoken with journalists, insisting that they are not engaged in prostitution.

During an interview with CBS 5 News, three of the women talked while in handcuffs. “I call myself a shaman. I believe in earth-based healing,” said Holly Alsop. After a six month investigation, Phoenix Police have 18 people behind bars accused of running a prostitution ring at the Phoenix Goddess Temple. When interviewed Friday, the women would not specifically say what the healing practices were, but when they were asked if any of them had sexual intercourse at the church, they had one very clear answer. “No, no. Absolutely not,” said Amanda Twitty. “Absolutely not. Everything we do is healing,” said Holly Alsop, and “No,” said Jamie Baker. “We’re not a brothel, we’re a church,” said Baker.

Whatever our suspicions in this matter, it’s now up to a judge or jury to decide if the evidence gathered by undercover officers is indeed enough to convict them of operating a prostitution ring. Whatever the truth of the matter, this should be an interesting test of how far religious protections can extend. We’ll keep you posted on further developments.

More on Santa Muerte: It seems I wasn’t the only one to have a problem with Tim Stanley’s vicious editorial in the Telegraph, George Conger at Get Religion dissects the assertions made about the Santa Muerte folk religion and finds them wanting.

Photo: Time Magazine / EFE / ZUMAPRESS

“The Telegraph’s argument is: Some illegal aliens from Mexico are devotees of the Santa Muerte cult. Americans do not like illegal immigration from Mexico. Therefore, fears of Santa Muerte lie behind opposition to illegal Mexican immigration. Sorry.  This won’t do. The bottom line: Correlation does not imply causation. [...] to support the claim that American perceptions of Mexican migration to the U.S. are influenced by fears of this cult needs evidence.”

Another UK paper, the Guardian, came out with a much more sympathetic and thoughtful piece on Santa Muerte just yesterday, in what can only be seen as a counter-point to Stanley’s hysteria.

“To one side of the shrine was a candle shop. We decided to buy a candle to put on the shrine as most of the people in the queue were holding candles. I had read earlier that each colour of candle carried with it a meaning: red for love, white for luck and black for protection. We bought a white candle each and went back to the end of the line. The man before us in the queue wore a black singlet, exposing his enlarged biceps which were covered in tattoos; his wrists and neck were draped in gold chains. We observed him carefully when he arrived at the shrine. First he lit a black candle and placed it down in front of him beneath the altar. Then he got down on his knees and crossed himself. With his eyes closed, he began to utter a prayer under his breath. Finally, he stood up and lit a cigarette. He took one puff and left the rest on the ashtray as an offering.”

Also giving a far more balanced look into Santa Muerte is Texas newspaper The Monitor, who notes the rise of altars and spiritual aspects to the drug trade, but gain perspective from anthropologist Antonio Zavaleta. Zavaleta observes that this trend is less about an increase in believers and more about “a relocation of them.”

NAR’s Respect For Other Religions: New Apostolic Reformation guiding light C. Peter Wagner has been on something of a public relations blitz lately, ever since his movement has come under public scrutiny due to its ties with Texas Governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry. Most recently, Wagner was interviewed by Voice of America, where he insists that NAR has respect for other religions, and operates “within religious pluralism.”

C. Peter Wagner. Image courtesy of skywaymedia.

“We don’t believe in taking over a nation. But we believe in exerting as much influence in every one of the mountains to see the values of the Kingdom of God within a democratic society, within religious pluralism,”

Rachel Tabachnick at Talk To Action does a thorough debunking of Wagner’s claims that NAR isn’t seeking dominion, and values pluralism, and Right Wing Watch joins in as well. RWW points out that Wagner admits to his movement’s growing political influence in the VoA interview.

“I think they’re right that the influence is growing and the influence was very strong in The Response meeting. But what I see in the media is that critics of conservative candidates like Rick Perry are accusing him of doing something bad by his friendship with people in the NAR. I don’t know if Rick Perry would consider himself as a part of the NAR but he had some people on the platform and in the audience who were part of the NAR. But I don’t think there is anything worse about being part of the NAR then being part of the Southern Baptists or being part of the Catholic Church or being part of any other segment of Christianity.”

As I’ve pointed out again and again, my bottom line is how their growing influence will affect religious minorities in the United States. NAR leaders have, time and time again, expressed their hostility to Pagan and occult belief systems, and any politician who willingly associates with them should be questioned regarding how much of their agenda they support.

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

Last year I warned that intensifying polarization over the issue of illegal immigration was leading to the demonization of Santeria and related syncretic faiths practiced by immigrants. Since then things have only gotten worse, especially in Arizona where a series of draconian lawsincluding one tailored to eliminate public school classes that are seen as too Mexican-focused, have deepened divisions. It didn’t have to be this way, many prominent conservatives, including George W. Bush, Orrin HatchCharles HagelRichard Lugar, and John McCain once supported compromise legislation like the DREAM Act, and  large swathes of Americans (including conservatives) support establishing a path to citizenship. I note this because I don’t think finding solutions to immigration issues has to be partisan, and that politicians who employ “kick ‘em all out” rhetoric are unwittingly feeding something ugly that they may not be able to control. I say this as preface to a startlingly ugly editorial in the Telegraph by conservative historian Tim Stanley, who frames illegal immigration not simply in terms of economics or crime, but as a religious war with a “Mexican death cult.”

Santa Muerte

“…the debate about illegal immigration isn’t just about competition over jobs or lingering white racism. Many Americans share the European fear that mass migration is subverting their democratic culture from within. In the same way that exotic cells of Jihadists have established themselves in London and Paris, criminal gangs motivated by bloodlust and kinky spiritualism have been found living in the suburbs of Boston and Atlanta. One of its many manifestations is the cult of Santa Meurte. [...] Tens of thousands of Mexicans living in America venerate Santa Muerte and have no association with crime. Nor is the cult purely ethnic: in North California, the Santisima Muerte Chapel of Perpetual Pilgrimage is tended by a woman of Dutch-American descent. But the prevalence of Santa Muerte imagery among drug traffickers injects an interesting cultural dimension to the debate over illegal immigration. It accentuates American fears that the drug war in Mexico is turning into an invasion of the USA by antidemocratic fanatics.”

While Stanley does include the disclaimer that many Mexicans who venerate Santa Muerte aren’t criminals, that is more than counter-balanced by connecting Santa Muerte to Muslim extremism over and over again.

“The goal of these groups is to undermine democracy and govern autonomous secret societies through family, blood and religion. [...] in Mexico, family and religion filled the vacuum left by the failure of socialism.”

I would recommend not reading the comments section of this editorial as it makes the most heated debates here at The Wild Hunt look like happy playtime, but there was one comment I thought was worth mentioning from R. Andrew Chestnut, author of the forthcoming book “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint” from Oxford University Press.

“The more “vicious threat” we face than Santa Muerte worshipers is our own insatiable demand for the methamphetamines, marihuana, and heroin supplied by the narco cartels. Moreover, Santa Muete (Saint Death) is a more complex folk saint than the demonic Grim Reapress of your piece. She aslo has many devotees among Mexican law enforcement.”

Indeed, if there’s a spiritual war being waged, it’s internal, not external.

“In secret meetings that draw on elements of Haitian Voodoo, Cuban Santeria and Mexican witchcraft, priests are slaughtering chickens on full moon nights on beaches, smearing police with the blood and using prayers to evoke spirits to guard them as drug cartels battle over smuggling routes into California. Other police in the city of Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, tattoo their bodies with Voodoo symbols, believing they can repel bullets.”

The worship of Santa Muerte is a complex thing, not easily used as proof of some sort of larger constructed “Mexican death cultists vs. United States Christian values” meme, and certainly not limited to being a “narco-saint”.

The authorities have condemned Santa Muerte as a “narco-saint,” worshipped by drug traffickers, cartel assassins and dope slingers. But the worship is more a reflection of contemporary Mexico, says the anthropologist J. Katia Perdigón Castañeda, the author of “La Santa Muerte: Protector of Mankind.” The cult is an urban pop amalgam, New Age meets heavy metal meets Virgin of Guadalupe. It is no accident that it is also cross-cultural — that the centers of worship are the poor, proud heart of Mexico City and the violent frontier lands of Laredo, Juarez and Tijuana. The cult borrows equally from Hollywood and the Aztec underworld. Altars, necklaces and tattoos honoring Santa Muerte also make appearances in Mexican American neighborhoods from Los Angeles to Boston. “The believers may be drug dealers, doctors, carpenters, housewives. The cult accepts all. No matter the social status or age or sexual preference. Even transsexuals. Even criminals. That’s very important, that the cult of Santa Muerte accepts everyone,” Perdigón told me, “because death takes one and all.”

Editorials like Stanley’s do nothing more than feed fear and hysteria, creating further roadblocks to addressing illegal immigration in a constructive ways by framing the problem as war for the religious soul of America itself. Reinforcing that immigrants, illegal or otherwise, aren’t simply “taking our jobs” they are something truly “other,” and not to be trusted. This leads to anti-immigration sentiment manifesting in ways that targets the very beliefs (or at least assumed beliefs) of immigrant groups (illegal or not). This leads to profiling, and ultimately, hate crimes. By saying that some illegal immigrants might be secret death-cultists who are just as bad as Muslim extremists, you tar all immigrants with suspicion and fear. A point that’s acknowledged by Stanley in his editorial.

“Sadly, Mexicans seeking work get caught in this existential drama and are either swallowed up into the gangs or demonised in the US for crimes they have not committed. Nevertheless, Americans of every ethnicity are legitimately concerned about their country being poisoned by a criminal subculture that blends political corruption with ritualised murder. Europeans should not be so quick to judge their transatlantic friends. Americans face a vicious threat of their own.”

Nevertheless, nevertheless, nevertheless. Repeat it like a mantra until the guilt of harming the innocent along with the guilty fades from the waking mind. Don’t think about the followers of Santa Muerte or other “cults” practiced by immigrants that will now be seen as suspicious simply because they believe as they do. Even if they have a visa, or are second, third, or forth generation United States citizens. Even if they pay the same taxes and have the same worries, we now must worry if they are secretly in league with “antidemocratic fanatics.” This kind of editorial is dangerous tinder for fires that aren’t easily put out, once lit. Fear-mongering of this sort does nothing to solve the problems posed by illegal immigration, or of drug trafficking, all it does is create something new to worry about.

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.