Archives For syncretism

As we gather this season to celebrate the birth of a God in the Levant, on the day the Sun visibly returns north, under Germanic trees, with presents delivered by an Orthodox Greek Bishop+Norse God+Celtic God, carrying a bag used to be a cauldron, driving a sleigh that once was an 8-legged horse, wearing dress popularized by a soft drink company, all of which is but one interpretation of the customs and iconography, it is right, meet, and proper that we give some thought to the world-wide practice of syncretism.

SyncretismAs we build Paganism into the future, we will inevitably syncretize, in the sense of blending elements of religious practices from a variety of sources into our lived religious life. For instance, embracing or rejecting it, Paganism can not help but be affected by Christianity; it affects how we practice and how we think about our practice. More importantly, what we have inherited from the past is fragmentary and must be supplemented with resources from cultures that are not the same as the one from which we are building. That is, of course, presuming there is such a ‘one.’ Some traditions of Pagan practice are simply an amalgam of diverse elements not necessarily hung upon one single root culture. This works just fine…

This use of the term ‘syncretism’ is, however, only one of the three major applications of the term. The first use had political meaning and can be found in Plutarch’s Moralia, in an essay entitled “On Brotherly Love.” The Cretans, who known for fighting among themselves, engaged in what they called ‘syncretism’ when threatened from the outside (Ch. 19), putting aside their differences to repel the invaders. It was later used by Erasmus in a religious setting, to find commonality even amid theological dissension.

However, the term was later used by classicists and other scholars to describe a number of religious phenomena which we should be careful to distinguish between. One is the identification of Deities from differing cultures as being, in some sense, the ‘same’ Deity. We barely notice the union of Venus with Aphrodite, or Mars with Ares, but we know these are different Deities. Zeus being seen the same as Baal or Marduk, or Hermes with Thoth enabled the entering culture (Greek, then Roman) to be able to identify and worship the Deities of the entered culture (Egypt, Mesopotamia, etc.). We can call this ‘identity’ syncretism.

Egyptologists use the term syncretism quite differently. In Ancient Egypt, more properly Khem, the distinctive character of the individual Deities was so important that, in invocation, a priest-person might declare, “I have not confused you with any other God/ess.” Yet, Deities of very differing character would be found in a combined form. In the Am Duat, at the darkest and deepest hour, Ra is united with Osiris. Elsewhere, He also had unions with Sobek, Khnum, and Amun. Sometimes the union would be between Deities from outside Egypt, such at Anat-Hathor, and Serapis during the Roman period, which was the union of Osiris, Apis, Zeus and Helios. Evidently, since cults were developed for some of these united forms, at some point someone experienced a theophany of the united form and duly set up a cult. This kind of syncretism is sometimes called Egyptian syncretism, but if we are trying to characterize it we might call it ‘fusion.’

Reliefs of Ptolemy VIII in Edfu Temple [Photo Credit:  JMCC1 via Wikimedia, cc. lic.]

Reliefs of Ptolemy VIII in Edfu Temple [Photo Credit: JMCC1 via Wikimedia, cc. lic.]

Then there is the wholesale blending of religious cultures. The Wikipedia reference for syncretism has a long list of vibrant traditions built upon syncretic foundations. The experience of Africans in the Caribbean and South America produced Candomblé, Vodou, and Lucumi (Santeria.) Unitarian Universalism combines so many different traditions that it no longer considers itself Christian. Buddhists and Hindus have learned from and integrated a large array of sources during their long histories.

Those are naturally only a few examples. In the modern Pagan traditions, the ways of the Witches and the Magicians both draw from a rich collection of sources originating in a variety of continents, as do many of our traditions. This can be termed ‘synthetic’ syncretism as these communities of practice are synthesized out of constituent elements. No pejorative meaning should be attributed to this term.

Two major countervailing streams oppose syncretism: modernism and orthodoxy. Modernism, with its fetish for ‘purity,’ created absolutist categories, which get instantiated in notions of nation and race, inevitably leading to nationalism and racism, reading its apogee in the politics of the Second World War. Orthodoxies of various stripe emerge all over the world, wherever there is sufficient power concentrated to dictate the thoughts of others. The best known example of this in the West, of course, is Christianity, which has imposed a thought system upon Europe, the Americas, and beyond. However, it’s drive for ‘right-opinion’ (ortho-doxy) has lead to the 40,000+ different sects of sometimes quite differing opinions.

Diversity in thought and ecosystems is normal. Nature always and only destroys monocultures. The exchange of ideas between cultures is likewise normal, and biologically modeled in the robust genetics of recombinant DNA. Or, in other words, sex demonstrates the value of idea exchange in embodied terms. Likewise, often in human thought, purity is considered the sin qua non of strength. Yet steel is ‘just’ dirty iron, and alloys like bronze and chrome-nickel-steel display strengths far greater than the sum of the strengths of their constituent materials. Highly diverse biomes are massively resilient. Syncretism in religion is an analogous process.

Amazon Rainforest [Photo Credit: lubasi via Wikimedia, cc. lic.]

The biodiverse Amazon Rainforest [Photo Credit: lubasi via Wikimedia, cc. lic.]

Being a young religion, we have much to do to stabilize and establish ‘a’ Pagan way, with all of its attendant and necessary diversity. We will do that in part by learning from the older religions (living and dead) around us, both from their good and worthy ideas and spiritual technologies, as well as from their errors and problems. Given our healthy aversion to orthodoxy, we will learn those lessons and apply them in innumerable ways. The greatest dangers in this are cultural and moral. As we to take in or retain ideas from non-Pagan ethnomes or religions, at what point does that group stop being Pagan?

Ours is a vibrant and growing religion, one developing and maturing. On the way we are learning from and absorbing the lessons (and the Deities) of many other religions. In this era of extraordinary communication and with a long history, we have to opportunity to learn with greater self-awareness than most religions get to have. Let us use this power wisely.

Happy Syncretizing!

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.

Design by Jeff Leiboff.

Design by Jeff Leiboff.

Actors portraying Angela Sanford and Joel Levya.

Actors portraying Angela Sanford and Joel Levya.

  • Angela Sanford, a Wiccan who killed Joel Leyva in what some media described as a ritualistic sacrifice, has had a request for a reduced sentence denied. Sanford has been sentenced to 20 years under a plea agreement, her story was recently dramatized on the show Fatal Encounters.
  • The Pagan community has been in the process of having a debate/discussion over the issue of obesity. It started with a post by Peter Dybing, and has been raging ever since. Notable responses have come from Star Foster,  Iris Firemoon, and  Kitsune Yokai at the Fat Pagan blog, with Margot Adler, Crystal Blanton, and Shauna Aura adding their voices in the comments of Peter’s blog. The most recent commentary on the question of health and obesity comes from T. Thorn Coyle: “There is some real dialogue, some hurt feelings, some anger, and some derision. Bottom line is this: we all have ways in which we do not walk our talk. Bottom line is this: we cannot know what another’s life looks like on the inside, by observing it from the outside.” As this conversation  no doubt continues, I hope we can steer clear of judging bodies, and instead focus on building a more supportive community for everyone.
  • At The Revealer, Alex Thurston writes about syncretism in Islam within the context of Mali and the destruction of Sufi shrines. Quote: “The alternative – and the greatest challenge to Ansar al Din’s program – is not to assert Islamists’ hidden love for the things they say they hate, but to assert the reality, the desirability, and the possibility that there is more than one way to be a real Muslim. Timbuktu in 2012 is not Mecca in 630. African Muslims are Muslims, full stop. And the loss of shrines in Timbuktu is a loss not only for world civilization and for locals, but also for Islam.”
  • PNC-Minnesota recently published two interviews, one with M. Macha NightMare, and one with Lady Yeshe Rabbit, who will be appearing at Sacred Harvest Fest. Quote: “I am bringing an open mind. I am interested in learning and sampling from you all the regional flavors of your community. I am bringing my own classes and rituals that I will be leading. One is a project that has been dear to my consciousness, called American Sabbats. It is looking at the secular, bank holidays of this country and their history, and the amount of energy that is generated within them. How the energy of those holidays, which many of us celebrate in addition to our Pagan holidays,  might be channeled toward the greater good of our country. There are many changes needed in our country in order to be healthy. I am curious to go and sample what the opinions and thoughts are of all of you who have a unique experience of America from your vantage point in the Midwest.”
  •  The US Dept. of Justice is supporting Native American inmates in their quest to have a South Dakota ban on using tobacco in religious ceremonies lifted. You can read the DOJ’s supporting brief, here.
  • Nicholas Campion, author of “Astrology and Cosmology in the World’s Religions,” shares an excerpt of his book at HuffPo’s religion section. Quote: “The ancient zodiac signs survive in the modern West because, uniquely, in an age of aggressive consumerism, media-overload and scientific materialism, they encourage people to reflect on themselves and their inner worlds; their hopes, fears and secret motivations. In mass culture, astrology replaces the remote scientific language of relativity and light-years with stories of love and luck. In an era when we are now aware that we live on an insignificant planet on the edge of a minor galaxy, astrology restores each individual to the center of their own cosmos. According to its practitioners it provides a sense of personal meaning and purpose and, sometimes, a guide to action. Both astrology’s advocates and its critics find rare agreement on this point. This has nothing to do with the truth of astrology’s claims, but it does explain its survival in the 21st century.”

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

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the past. Not the recent past, but the ancient world. Most modern Pagan faiths assert some connection with pre-Christian religion, whether it’s as inspiration, revival, reconstruction, or even claims to direct lineage. Recently our communities have seen renewed debates over how much of a connection we truly have, and whether recent scholarship was too quick to deem the matter of pagan survivals closed. At this year’s PantheaCon I witnessed a presentation in which an Italian group claimed direct connection to the ancient world, though not without some controversy. The synchronicity was palpable, and in some cases I believe the lines between mythic history and what may have actually happened are being intentionally blurred. But even when we stick to the approved sources, and try to reconstruct as faithfully as we can, there’s still the risk of us creating/recreating the past in our own image. I think a recent essay by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus on eclecticism and syncretism in the ancient world illustrates this problem quite well.

This idea of cultural impurity and anti-syncretism, of course, ignores the many historical and provable cases in which there was eclecticism or syncretism in operation. Anyone who worships Gaulish or ancient British deities is doing so from syncretistic sources. Shinto is a syncretistic religion, having combined certain concepts from various forms of Buddhism into itself, as well as both Japanese and Ainu animism, Taoist energetic philosophies and esoteric techniques, amongst other things (including, in some cases, Christian saints becoming kami!). For that matter, what we think of as “Greek religion” or “Roman religion” is also, at its core, syncretistic. Most polytheistic systems are profoundly local, and thus the “religion of Rome” is combined from Latin, Sabine, Umbrian, Etruscan, and any number of other Italic religious elements…and that’s in its strictly Roman form. As time went on, increasing influence from Greece, and encounters with the cultures of Carthage, the Near East, and a variety of other peoples from diverse geographic areas influenced the Roman practices and the content of the Roman pantheon. “Greek religion” is–what, exactly? The religion of ancient Athens, about which we have the most information? The religion of ancient Sparta? Boeitia (including Thebes)? Crete? While some ancient Greeks might make an argument for any of those possibilities, they would most likely exclude Crete from the picture…and yet, as far as we’re concerned, Crete is under the heading of “Greek religion.” Take a god like Dionysos, for example, and he seems to be the combination of many possible different deities from originally separate, local cultus; the same is true of Artemis (compare Artemis of Ephesus to Artemis of Brauron to Artemis Orthia of Sparta, for starters!), and Zeus, and Demeter, and any number of other deities that we consider “Greek.”

It is, of course, human nature to create a past we feel comfortable with. Especially our “pagan” pasts. Several nonfiction books I’ve been reading lately, “Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism”, “Electric Eden”, and “The Birth of Classical Europe”, all deal with how our ancient pasts are constantly redefined, reexamined, and retold to suit our current needs. As our present recedes into memory, even when we have ample documentation, we tend to keep a kind of cultural shorthand and forget the rest until some new frame of reference is required. The problem is when we use a certain (often incomplete) conception of the past as a way to feel superior, or even give us permission to act callously towards others.  Of course, Pagans aren’t the only ones who create incomplete or mythic images of our ancient past, Christian apologists are very fond of the exercise as well.

“I recently finished watching the first season of the Starz Channel series “Spartacus.” The series is definitely not for the squeamish, or those easily offended by the salacious depiction of Roman debauchery, maybe not even for those not so easily offended. But it is a powerful depiction of the pagan Western world prior to the advent of Christianity, and as impressive as Roman civilization was at the time, it was nightmare for those who were not Roman citizens. […] As I was watching the show, I was wondering what the Western world would have looked like if Christianity had remained a small Jewish sect stuck in Palestine […] The juxtaposition of Roman culture to that of the spreading Christian Church is stark, as light is to dark, day is to night and as up is to down.”

I vacillate between laughter and dread at the thought that there are people out there who believe “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena” is even close to an accurate portrait of ancient Rome. Yet, even if we removed the specter of that nudity and blood-drenched series, Christian revisionism of the past has been common since that religion rose to prominence in the latter part of the Roman Empire. Even when the past is largely Christian, it must be made even more so to suit current agendas.

The quest, I feel, is to keep our images of the past from becoming calcified into immovable doctrine. That we should be supple enough to absorb new information and theories. Faiths that build their foundation on historical claims in some ancient era, no matter how well researched, always run the risk of encountering new information, new theories, better scientific data. Such a faith can be shaken or shattered, whether it’s based on the Biblical creation story, or where Atlantis is. Some have tried to discredit Wicca by attacking its origin myths, but they miss the point of most modern Pagan faiths, which are often more focused on the experiential than on proper doctrine or utter faith in its creation myths. I have great faith in my religion, I can have meaningful experiences with its myths in the proper contexts, while still laughing at the Pagan-themed “teach the controversy” t-shirts. My belief doesn’t hinge on Gardner, or any other Pagan elder (or text), being “right”. The past should inspire, enrich, and help guide our efforts to (re)build modern Pagan faiths, so long as we remain aware of  our limitations and the limitations of our source material.

Namaste, Wild Hunt readers! Many thanks to Jason for his invitation to bring some perspective on a subject that is more and more relevant – the issue of worshipping Hindu deities as a Pagan.

As the Pagan community grows, so do the various approaches to deity and ritual. While much of the Pagan world is involved in creating new traditions, reconstructing ancient ones, and everything in between, there are more and more Pagans who are drawn to living traditions such as the various African diasporic religions, Buddhism, and Hinduism. These practitioners typically want to maintain their basic philosophy and approach to religion, which often allows them to worship many deities in a spontaneous, eclectic way, and allows them to connect with many different Gods and Goddesses, while also incorporating deities or practices they find themselves drawn to.

One of the issues that comes up when this happens is appropriation. Cultural appropriation happens when someone from one culture borrows symbols, rituals, and practices from another culture without fully understanding the context, meaning, and complexity of those things, and then passes them off as one’s own, or uses their own interpretations and then passes them off as “authentic.” This becomes especially problematic when dealing with interactions between members of cultures with historical roots in colonialism, slavery, and exploitation.

With Hinduism, we often see Gods and Goddesses appropriated to give an “exotic” feel to a product, and in a religious sense when someone wants to worship a Hindu deity, but believes that their personal interpretation and experience of the deity is all that matters, and use pop cultural knowledge to essentialize these deities (i.e. Ganesha is reduced to a “remover of obstacles,” or Lakshmi becomes a “money goddess”). While putting a Hindu deity on a T-shirt isn’t so culturally offensive like putting one on a toilet seat is, plenty of my fellow Hindus are rightfully upset about the various appropriations of our religion, as it often betrays a simple disrespect or ignorance of Hindu culture and Indian history and philosophy, or a sense of entitlement to colonize and appropriate important symbols and deities.

From my own experience talking to and teaching people in the Pagan community about Hindu worship and deity, I have seen how paralyzing the fear of cultural appropriation can be, and I’ve also seen plenty of positive and negative sycretism. Some people feel drawn to these deities, but don’t know where to begin, and don’t want to step on any toes while they’re learning, so they never pursue it. I’ve seen plenty of neo-Pagans doing a great job at respectfully approaching Hindu deities and incorporating Hindu worship into their own with some amount of care and respect. At the same time, I’ve also seen a few neo-Pagans worship Hindu deities with some bravado, and have seen and heard about some rituals that are at best ignorant and at worst blatantly disrespectful of Hindu traditions and culture.

So what does it mean to worship a Hindu deity? Can you worship a Hindu deity if you are not Indian or Hindu? If you can, what does it require? I’ve run into a lot of spoken (and unspoken) misconceptions in the Pagan community around these questions, and I’d like to share some of my own perspective by debunking three common myths. You’ll also find this discussion relevant to approaching other living traditions.

Myth #1: You have to be Hindu to worship Hindu deities.

There are some very orthodox Hindus who believe that you have to be an Indian to be a Hindu, and there are many temples that bar entrance to non-Hindus (generally meaning non-Indians, but that can also mean those of low-caste, or who have any known non-Hindu ancestry). But there are also plenty of Hindus who believe that it’s what is in your heart that makes you a Hindu, not your nationality or the color of your skin. Hinduism at its best is incredibly accepting of many ways of knowing Truth. There are also plenty of temples that welcome people from all religions to worship the deities housed there, with a recognition that no one can put a limit on God, or on the human heart.

So, you don’t have to be Hindu to worship Hindu deities, but you do have to have respect for Hindu traditions and culture if you decide to become a devotee of a particular deity.

For example, I am a student of classical Indian music, and I can relate to you countless examples of Muslim music masters who were devout Muslims, but nevertheless worshipped Hindu deities, often through heartfelt religious songs and Sanskrit prayers. In the same way, if you are a neo-Pagan and you feel drawn to a Hindu deity, it’s important to learn the ways in which that deity is worshipped, so that you can be respectful to the tradition from which it comes.

Learning how to do a simple puja (worship ritual) and sing a couple of simple traditional songs is a good first step. Learning from a qualified teacher within the tradition is a great way to deepen your knowledge and practice, and there are a number of books, free videos, articles, and even email listservs that can help you with the basics. The best way to respectfully incorporate worship of Hindu deities into your own Pagan worship is to put in the time and energy to learn how they are worshipped traditionally.

Myth #2: You have to learn Sanskrit to worship Hindu deities.

I hear this one a lot! Hindu deities are worshipped with Sanskrit, and in order to develop your worship, you should learn a few basic Sanskrit prayers (mantras) to offer to your chosen deity. This is both a sign of devotion to your deity, as well as a sign of respect for the tradition.

But the fact is, most Hindus, regardless of nationality, don’t know Sanskrit beyond the basic chants and mantras they have learned from going to temples or performing simple worship in their own home, and history is full of saints who worshipped deities with ecstatic poetry and songs in their own native language. And most Hindus have small shrines in their homes where they offer very regular, very simple worship.

Sanskrit has two levels of power – the meaning of a given word or phrase, and the vibration created when spoken. Some mantras cannot be translated, but are purely spoken for their vibrational power. Even if you don’t know the meaning of a mantra, speaking it will evoke the power and blessing of the deity for which it was formulated hundreds or thousands of years ago. Thus, it’s important to learn some Sanskrit in order to perform basic worship, both to honor the tradition and to honor the deity properly. But you need not learn the entire language. Just learn the mantras you need to worship your deity, and learn them well so that you can infuse them with your devotion.

Myth #3: I can worship this deity any way I want, because it’s all about my relationship with them, and what I intuit.

This is a tricky one. Intuition is important when working with any deity, but what we see when we look at a symbol (including representation of deity) is informed by our own cultural information. Cultural appropriation happens most egregiously when we adopt symbols from other cultures, and then reassign meaning without regard to their original meaning or purpose. This is why the sacred texts and reputable gurus and teachers are important – they help us to understand the deeper meaning of mantra and ritual, contextualize symbols and experiences, and help us learn how to listen to our highest selves in more meaningful ways.

When we look at the Goddess Kali, for instance, one might see a terrifying Goddess of death and destruction. In fact, many in the Pagan community misconstrue and appropriate Kali as a Crone Goddess, emphasize Her as destroyer even while acknowledging Her role as creator, or essentialize Her as a Goddess of transformation. But this would be a terrible misconception of this Goddess who embodies but is also beyond Maiden, Mother and Crone (in fact, She is nothing less than Infinite Being), who is understood as benevolent and loving in West Bengal, where some of Her most famous temples are, as well as in Kerala, Assam, Bihar, and elsewhere throughout India.

To say it more succinctly, Hindu deities don’t exist without Hinduism. Hinduism doesn’t exist without community. So the best way to understand Hindu deities and offer respectful worship is to actually understand Hinduism and Hindu culture by participating in it. If you haven’t had the benefit of being raised in a Hindu culture, that means you’ll have to spend some time learning about it.

Although it’s uncomfortable to talk about, I also find that there are a surprising number of white Pagans who are afraid to visit Indian temples because they are afraid of being the only white people, not because they are worried about religious differences. This is an important fear to acknowledge and confront, because it goes to the heart of the cultural appropriation problem. If you can’t worship a Hindu deity in the midst of Indian Hindus, if you can’t be yourself and make friends in a community of people who share your devotion to this deity, then how can you claim to really respect the deity and the culture? If you feel uncomfortable, then good! That means you’re probably ready to learn something! Not just about the worship and the community, but about yourself, which is part of both the Hindu and the Pagan journey toward Truth.

I’ll say it again: Hindu deities are not separate from Hindu culture, and have been worshipped in much the same way for thousands of years. Learn and respect the path!

I now consider myself a Hindu, but I have been a practitioner of Goddess spirituality for nearly 20 years, and I started firmly rooted in the Pagan community. I’m also not Indian – I’m of European descent – and so being a Hindu and running a very small Hindu Goddess temple constantly challenges me to learn more and interact fully with the culture and the traditions from which the Hindu tradition comes. But I’m grateful for the generosity and good will of those who have shared their knowledge and their traditions with me, which includes my gurus, teachers, and friends. And I’m committed to helping people of all faiths learn more about respectful, traditional worship in a way that is simple and straightforward for the average devotee.

My own temple is explicitly a Hindu Shakta Tantric temple, and we welcome anyone from any path who wishes to come and worship the Goddess. We also offer a number of articles and a podcast to help both Hindus and non-Hindus learn more about the deeper meanings of deity and worship. There are also plenty of Indo-Pagan groups out there, and you may find that someone has already forged a path that speaks to your own desire to worship Hindu deities within a Pagan context. And finally, Hindu temples are generally welcoming to non-Hindus, as long as you are a respectful devotee. Dress conservatively, and if you don’t know what to do or how to worship, just ask someone to help you. Human beings are generally helpful and generous creatures when asked sincerely, and Hindus are no exception.

Even if you don’t worship Hindu deities, if you feel drawn to deities from a living tradition that is from a culture other than your own, the guidelines above – learn the worship from a qualified teacher, learn the basic prayers, engage in the community of devotees – are good ones to follow. I hope that this has been helpful, and I look forward to seeing the discussion develop!

Greetings Wildhunt readers and thank you, Jason, for sharing this forum with me for a day.

I’ve just published a book called Theater in a Crowded Fire that sets out to examine what people say, do, and think around questions of religion, ritual, and spirituality at the Burning Man festival. I could pepper readers here with dozens of lively stories about ecstatic bonfires, dusty temples, and wild propane hunts (and some of these tales are told in the book). (If by chance you’re not familiar with Burning Man, this is as a good place as any to start.) But instead, I hope you’ll bear with me while I put on my professor’s hat for a spell and wax academic about the links between Burning Man and Paganism, and in turn what I think this teaches us about the nature of religion and culture.

No one I’ve ever spoken to (and I’ve been attending and researching this event since 1996) has ever come right out and called Burning Man a religion–Pagan or otherwise–and the event’s organizers have repeatedly stated as much for years. However, I think in some ways it can be considered to be a pagan (note the lower case) phenomenon. In this meaning, I see the uppercase term “Pagan” as referring to our various Neopagan traditions–that is the sets of practices, beliefs, and communities that are seen as (albeit loosely) constituting our family of religions–while I use the lowercase term “pagan” as a more general adjective.

In this sense, I am thinking of Michael York’s concept of “root religion,” which identifies paganism as a set of shared–yet diversely constituted–primal religious tendencies that broadly underlie all global religions. As he stated, “inasmuch as paganism is the root of religion, it confronts the earliest, the most immediate, and the least processed apprehensions of the sacred. This is the experiential level on which paganism in both its indigenous and contemporary forms wishes to concentrate.” (see York’s Pagan Theology)

Burning Man has a similarly embodied, experiential, and ritualized quality. This feeling is in part engendered by the encounter with nature in Nevada’s Black Rock desert. In the beauty and essential simplicity of this vast dusty arena–as well as in the visceral physical experience of its arid and demanding environment–many participants encounter a sense of the transformative and numinous.

This sense is also nurtured by the festival’s extravagant ritualism. Just as Pagans gather seasonally to consecrate the rhythms of life, Burners annually create their event in order to celebrate catharsis and ecstasy. In addition to the central and definitive ritual bonfire, there are numerous other rites that have transpired at the festival over the years–massive ephemeral temples dedicated to memory and mourning, anti-consumerist parodies of Christian evangelism, operatic performances invoking Vodou lwas, Shabbat services conducted in the skeleton of a gothic cathedral, yoga and meditation classes, reiki attunement sessions, Balinese monkey chant –the list could go on and on. All of this speaks to the persistence and importance of ritual as meaning making device. While Burning Man explicitly lacks any avowed theology and consistently ducks easy classification as “religion” (in an uppercase sense), it displays numerous ritualistic elements and motifs that echo this underlying root paganism.

Of course, some Burning Man participants are explicitly Pagan. However, one of the somewhat surprising finds of my research (I interviewed or surveyed over 300 participants) was that the number who stated specific affiliations with Christianity or Judaism was slightly higher than the number who directly identified with less “mainstream” traditions (in the U.S., at any rate), such as Paganism and Buddhism. This could be an accident of my sample, but it generally seems that Burning Man typically draws those who adhere to no tradition, or who speak of themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” (I delve further into and critique this notion in the book.)

As expressions of “root religion,” one of the things that both Burning Man and contemporary Paganism have in common is their use of diverse cultural symbols in their rites. Questions of cultural appropriation and authenticity are, I realize, sensitive issues in Pagan and Indigenous communities. But ultimately history shows that religions are not static and that hybridity and syncretism are key forces in cultural change, as processes of both defining and transgressing boundaries. As diverse traditions and cultures come into contact across contexts, they inevitably borrow from and occasionally merge into one another, while also retaining or rejecting certain core elements. In this sense, both Burning Man and Paganism point to the ways in which religious and cultural systems are at once mutable, dynamic, and creative, as well as conservative and enduring through their use of various ancient, mythic, and “pagan” symbols.

Ultimately, I think Burning Man is a fascinating case study of some of the ways in which what we call (for lack of better terms) religion and spirituality is evolving in what we call (again, for lack of better terms) postmodern culture. As with the contemporary Pagan movement, Burning Man blurs the boundaries as to what is generally considered to be “religion.” For many (though by no means all) participants, Burning Man satisfies a set of desires similar to those conventionally fulfilled by religions, but which increasingly seeps outside of clearly demarcated institutions and doctrines.

Finally, in addition to the book, on the chance that anyone is eager to dig more deeply into my thoughts on these topics, readers might also be interested in my occasional posts on Burning Man’s Blog as well as a recent interview on Religion Dispatches. And if you’re interested in following my ongoing work on Burning Man, I’d be delighted to be able to keep up with you via facebook.

Lee Gilmore is a Lecturer in Religious Studies and Anthropology at California State University, Northridge. The author of Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual & Spirituality at Burning Man, she has been in, out, around, and studying the Pagan community (mostly Feri traditions) for the better part of 20 years.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia, has drawn to a close. The closing plenary by His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso the XIVth Dalai Lama given, and some remarkable advances for modern Pagans at this massive interfaith event have been achieved. As we await post-Parliament reflections from Pagan participants, an issue of identity and language has emerged this past week that could spark some bitter divisions just as our interconnected communities gain greater respect and visibility among the world’s religions. In a post yesterday to the Pagans at the Parliament blog, Ed Hubbard, who has been covering the Pagan presence at the Parliament, noted a trend towards new definitions of certain Pagan traditions.

“The first Pagan presentation of the Parliament helped begin this change of identity and was called “People Call Us Pagans-The European Indigenous Traditions”, by PWR Trustees Angie Buchanan, Andras Arthen, and Phyllis Curott. The opening of the description is as follows: As the World confronts environmental devastation, we are beginning to appreciate the wisdom of Indigenous peoples who have lived thousands of years in sustainable harmony and spiritual connection with the Earth. After hundreds of years of suppression, most Westerners have forgotten that their ancestors once shared this wisdom as the Indigenous traditions of Europe.”

Apparently the term “European Indigenous Traditions” was used by some during the Parliament as a way to redefine Pagan faiths to non-Westerners unfamiliar with what “Pagan” (or “Neopagan”) meant, to shift relations with Abrahamic faiths that might be hostile to mere “pagans”, and to approach indigenous/native peoples suspicious of cultural appropriation. While redefining (some) modern Pagans as “indigenous” carries with it a host of issues and questions, there was also the matter of who among the modern Pagans aren’t considered “indigenous” (or even “Pagan” for that matter).

“Andras Corban-Arthen points out that Wicca, for example, cannot be seen as an indigenous Pagan faith practice and is instead a modern syncretic movement. Under this description Wicca therefore would not fall under the definition of Pagan, and would be squarely a New Religious Movement, while British Traditional Witchcraft could be considered a Pagan and Indigenous faith tradition.”

So if you are an initiated Gardnerian you get to be in the “European Indigenous Traditions” club, but if you practice some other form of modern Witchcraft, say, Feri, or Reclaiming, you may not be. If you are a book-taught eclectic, you may not even be considered “Pagan” under these new definitions. Now, these are very provocative statements, and I called Ed Hubbard yesterday in Melbourne to verify that his information was correct. He assures me that he has documentation for everything in his post, which he’ll share once he’s stateside. No doubt Arthen, and the other Parliament Pagan trustees, will soon be able to speak for themselves on this issue, and I welcome their clarifications on the matter.

So what does it mean if the Pagans who are representing us on the Parliament Board of Trustees are indeed willing to separate the “New Religious Movement” goats from the “European Indigenous Traditions” sheep within the global interfaith movement? How would we even quantify when a Pagan tradition crosses from “NRM” to indigenous? Claims of lineage? Claims of heritage? Would any proof be necessary? Or is this mainly a political act, with the “right” groups grandfathered in? Are book-taught reconstructionists “indigenous” while second or third-generation eclectic-tradition Wiccans part of  a “syncretic” new religious movement? It just seems like a minefield, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

“So Pagan is redefined to include only indigenous religious movements? And Wicca is therefore not Pagan (despite its position as the forerunner of the Pagan resurgence of the 20th Century)? But British Traditional Witchcraft somehow is Pagan, presumably because it is “indigenous”? That’s just daft. There’s little plausible historical evidence for a continuous indigenous witchcraft tradition, inside or outside Britain, and what I know of BTW falls squarely within the history of Wicca as described by Ronald Hutton and others. I agree with Michael York that the Western Pagan movement does share some vital common ground with indigenous religions worldwide, and I am willing to be convinced that certain European Pagan traditions might plausibly be described as “indigenous.” But it flies in the face of both the recent history of the Pagan movement as a 20th and 21st Century phenomenon, and of what we know of the history of Wicca (including BTW) to redefine Paganism in this way. Plus, I’m not budging. I’m Pagan, and I know I didn’t delegate anybody at the Parliament to speak for me or to define me out of the religion!”Cat Chapin-Bishop, from a comment on the Pagans at the Parliament blog.

Other reacted more harshly, saying these new definitions were a case of “striving for false legitimacy”.

Now, there is always the chance that comments were misconstrued, or misunderstood. So we should await official word from the Pagan members of the Parliament Board of Trustees before we accuse anyone of trying to drive wedges between different Pagan groups. Context is king, and I don’t want to start any flame-wars for an off-the-cuff idea or mis-stated opinion. As for myself, I consider myself Pagan, and part of a larger Pagan movement, even if I wasn’t initiated into a British Traditional tradition, or privy to some sort of handed-down European fam-trad. I’m a modern Pagan, and I have no problem with owning both the “modern” and the “Pagan” part of that term. What do you  think? Are you part of a new religious movement? A European Indigenous Tradition? None of the above? Should we be building fences, or tearing them down?

Top Story: Jon Lee Anderson of the Guardian brings us a riveting look at the massively violent drug wars raging in Rio’s favelas, where over 5000 people were murdered last year, and police-affiliated militias can be as deadly as the gangs. While exploring the question of if this situation can be reversed, and the culture of these gangs, Anderson focuses on Fernandinho, a gang-leader who converted to evangelical Christianity in 2007 and melds Christian morals with the violence of his trade.

“On 20 August 2007, a banner headline of the Rio tabloid Meia Hora said: “Thug beheads those who don’t follow his rules”, and underneath, “Fernandinho Guarabu, Dendê’s boss, uses an axe to execute his victims. The evangelical trafficker forbids even macumba in the favela.” (Macumba refers to one of the country’s African-derived religions, along with Umbanda and Candomblé, which strict evangelicals see as little more than witchcraft.) That same day, in the broadsheet O Dia, this report appeared: “In spite of his violence, the ‘word of God’ must always be propagated, sometimes in a radical way. Guarabu has supposedly banned Umbanda and Candomblé rituals, as well as spiritualist séances. At 6pm every day, a pastor’s prayer echoes on the narrow alleys.” What had happened was that Fernandinho had become friendly with Pastor Sidney, and had been born again. He took to his new faith with great enthusiasm. He had “Jesus Cristo” tattooed on one of his forearms in big letters, and Morro do Dendê was soon covered with new religious graffiti. The community swimming pool he had built now had a sign above it saying, “This Belongs to Jesus Christ”. Also, Fernandinho had supposedly ordered his men not to carry out “violent” crimes, such as carjacking, armed robbery and murder, although he was still selling drugs.”

Naturally, the story of Fernandinho’s conversion doesn’t have a happy ending for the Christians who sought to curb his violence. His gang is back to murdering informants, and Fernandinho is estranged from the pastor who converted him. That hasn’t stopped other, less scrupulous, pastors from ingratiating themselves, or even allowing their churches to be used by his operation. Proof, perhaps, that mere conversion can’t solve these problems, and may even redirect the violence into places they hadn’t anticipated (the violence against non-Christians in his favela for instance). With the international spotlight shining on Rio for the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics, it should be interesting to see what the government does to curb gang violence and reform the police forces before massive floods of international tourists arrive.

In Other News: The Poughkeepsie Journal has a surprisingly solid article by Lauren Yanks exploring the Winter Solstice from a variety of view-points both secular and spiritual. This includes a local Wiccan shop-owner and a Norse Pagan employee.

“Patrick Twamley also works at the Awareness Shop. Twamley follows the Norse pagan tradition. “In the Norse pagan tradition, the night before the solstice is usually called Mother’s Night,” he said. “It’s a time to honor the female ancestors of your line. This probably goes back to the idea of the mother giving birth to the sun.” As part of the Norse tradition, on the winter solstice Twamley sprinkles everybody with ale as a way of bestowing a blessing, usually out of a blessing bowl. Then there is a feast and a toast to the female spirits. “It’s a way to show gratitude for all we’ve been given,” he said.”

Yanks also asks academics about Native American traditions relating to the Winter Solstice, and interviews the minister of the Uniterian Universalist Fellowship in Poughkeepsie. Maybe papers should encourage more academics (Yanks teaches English at SUNY New Paltz) to write features for them, they, at least, know to quote multiple sources.

It seems English Catholic Archbishop Vincent Nichols made a theological faux pas while at a visit to a Hindu temple in London and (allegedly) placed flowers on the altar of the Hindu deities. This most likely unwitting violation of the First Commandment has gotten Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher’s dander up.

“I’ll say this for the Muslims: they know better than to get into this syncretism garbage. It is not only possible to honor other religions without paying homage to their gods, it is mandatory for Christians. I would not expect a Jew or a Muslim to cross himself at a Christian altar, or before a Christian crucifix or an icon. Nor would I be insulted in the least if he didn’t. It’s those who are indifferent to what a gesture like this means that worry me.”

Ah yes, “syncretism garbage”. Never mind that this wasn’t an act of “syncretism”, but most likely an unwitting mistake, it’s enough of an excuse to unleash the river of bile and snark Dreher holds for minority non-Christian faiths in general, and for Pagan and African diasporic faiths in particular. Did a polytheist kick his puppy as a child? Did Wiccans steal his lunch-money? It can’t simply be Christian piety that drives this particular immaturity.

So have you heard about the Goth Pagan Robin Hood yet? No? You are so missing out! It seems a man calling himself Frater Osiris Xnoubis robbed a bank wearing black leathers and then proceeded to hand the money out at a local sandwich shop.

“He handed a note to terrified cashier Laura Sulling telling her he was armed and demanded she hand over the cash in her till. Xnoubis, a Pagan worshipper, stuffed £6,570 into a bag and told her to “have a nice day” before calmly walking out of the HSBC branch in Terminus Road, Eastbourne. He walked a few yards to The Gildridge pub where he handed barmaid Gemma Clark a £20 note for a bottle of beer and told her to keep the change. After downing his drink he left and went to nearby Harrisons sandwich bar. He handed the bag of cash to astonished owner Clive Benneys, who was also his landlord, saying: “You are good people, help yourselves.” Xnoubis left the shop and promptly went to the police station in Grove Road where he confessed to the robbery.”

A psychiatric report stated he was depressed, but not mentally ill. A judge sentenced him to three-and-a-half years after a guilty plea. Perhaps years from now they’ll sing ballads for brave Frater Osiris Xnoubis, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Perhaps they’ll give him a merry band of goths and Pagans who help him in his quest! Hey, stranger things have happened.

In a final note, Erynn Rowan Laurie has a review up of “Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon”, a collection of essays inspired by, deriving from, or just celebrating the influential work of historian Ronald Hutton. She finds several things to like about the collection, but says its hindered by sloppy editing and some rather mediocre essays.

“There are a number of other articles in the book, some of which are passable, but unfortunately one of the editors had the least readable and least useful article in the whole compilation. It’s unfortunate he didn’t himself have an editor to look over his own work. I think that if you’re a Hutton fan, you’ll find a lot to like in this book, as well as a few things that might challenge your opinions. If you’re not specifically a Hutton fan but are interested in the state of scholarship regarding Paganism and the occult today, this will also be quite worth reading. Just be prepared for a lot of bad editing.”

Shame about the editing really, you’d expect better from an academic-oriented collection. Still, I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy for review (and my own edification).

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

I was going to write about a prominent Ukrainian Pagan politician that was hit (and killed) by lightning, but it looks like I’m going to have to address Pope Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, instead. It’s no secret that Benedict has a special dislike of “paganism” and anything that may even hint at theologically destabilizing the Church’s patriarchal hierarchy (like feminist theology), he’s described pre-Christian gods as “questionable” and unable to provide hope, and engaged in a kind of Holocaust revisionism by saying that Nazi-ism was born of “neo-paganism”, but these were only indirect criticisms of modern manifestations of Pagan religion. Now, he’s directly addressing modern Paganisms in his latest encyclical.

“…it is contrary to authentic development to view nature as something more important than the human person. This position leads to attitudes of neo-paganism or a new pantheism — human salvation cannot come from nature alone, understood in a purely naturalistic sense…”

To be fair, he also criticizes the idea of nature as mere “raw material”, and promotes an end to “reckless exploitation”. In fact, if this were the extent of Bendict’s swipes at modern Paganism I might have left it alone, but he returns to the subject again later on in the work.

“There are certain religious cultures in the world today that do not oblige men and women to live in communion but rather cut them off from one other in a search for individual well-being, limited to the gratification of psychological desires. Furthermore, a certain proliferation of different religious “paths”, attracting small groups or even single individuals, together with religious syncretism, can give rise to separation and disengagement. One possible negative effect of the process of globalization is the tendency to favour this kind of syncretism by encouraging forms of “religion” that, instead of bringing people together, alienate them from one another and distance them from reality. At the same time, some religious and cultural traditions persist which ossify society in rigid social groupings, in magical beliefs that fail to respect the dignity of the person, and in attitudes of subjugation to occult powers. In these contexts, love and truth have difficulty asserting themselves, and authentic development is impeded. For this reason, while it may be true that development needs the religions and cultures of different peoples, it is equally true that adequate discernment is needed. Religious freedom does not mean religious indifferentism, nor does it imply that all religions are equal.”

Catholicism is the best! Paganism is the worst! Rah! Rah! Rah! Some religions are more equal than others, right Benedict? I love the scare quotes around religion when describing syncretic, magical, and occult belief systems, it really drives home that the current leader of the Catholic Church doesn’t see us as even practicing a valid faith (even if in error). I suppose I should be flattered that the Pope considers us enough of a going concern that we’re mentioned in an encyclical, but I doubt it’s a first step towards understanding or tolerance. After all, if we aren’t “equal” to Catholicism (and other faiths that the Catholic Church deems “real” religions), maybe we don’t deserve the same religious freedoms and protections.

I always expect a bit of triumphalism and rhetoric when a religious tradition talks to itself, after all, if they didn’t think they were the best faith ever why bother? However, some of the conclusions made by Benedict here could have some chilling repercussions for modern Pagans around the world. We are already seeing a rise in Catholic exorcists who see adherence to “New Age” or Pagan religions as a form of demonic possession, isolated instances of growing radicalism among Catholic youth, and a crack-down on practices like Reiki for being “corrupting” to your spiritual health, what actions could result from this latest encyclical where a hierarchy of religious freedom is subtly endorsed?

The Thanksgiving holiday weekend is over, and we are all headed back to our normal routines (with the addition of Winter Festival planning). It is a pity then, that we had to wait until now to read Latino religious scholar Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo’s examination of the Thanksgiving holiday, and why he thinks “turkey day” has become “Earth Religion”.

“What has so radically changed an event whose origins were clouded by violence, exploitation and bigotry? The answer, I think, is that the anniversary of the vengeful European and Pilgrim abuse of Native Americans has become identified with Earth Religion. It is a common practice in most of the religions around the world to celebrate the final harvest and the last meal with cold-weather “fresh” food – meaning pumpkins and cranberries in Massachusetts – before being confined to eating only preserves during the winter. Christianity, particularly in its Catholic incarnation, proved astute in syncretizing its beliefs to the rhythms of Earth Religions. The original Calvinistic Thanksgiving Day of 1621 has become today’s relevant religious festival, I think, because it was syncretized with the Native American and other Earth Religion celebrations for the coming of winter. Thus, there is more to celebrate here than a turkey dinner or even the restoration of the extended family in American experience. Rather let us give thanks for the porosity of Christianity to Earth Religion. The meaning of the day no longer rests upon the dominance of one religion, such as that of the Pilgrims, which conquered the other one belonging to the Native Americans. While that power equation defined the original Thanksgiving, today equality and tolerance is celebrated instead. What joins us now is recognition of how Mother Earth is the necessary material connection to what is spiritual.”

So next year as you bake that pumpkin pie, roast the turkey (or tofurkey), say a cursory opening prayer amongst throngs of relatives, and enjoy ritualized combat spectacles (football games), you can do so with the knowledge that you are all celebrating the earth/harvest goddess in a syncretic holiday mixing Christian piety with pre-Christian harvest motifs. A situation that any good polytheist could endorse (between mouthfuls).

A story on the growing popularity of Pagan prayer beads or “rosaries” has made the rounds to some of the heavy-hitters on the religious Internet. It appeared in somewhat truncated form on Beliefnet and now the media commentary site Get Religion has profiled the story.

“The story does a good job of making it clear that this kind of prayer rite produces a form of spirituality that may seem to create a bridge between different faiths. The experience is similar, as is the yearning for a physical object on which to concentrate while praying. But the contents of the prayers are different, which means the doctrines are different.”

This story brings up all sorts of questions concerning the mixing of Christian ideas with non-Christian faiths. “Christo-pagans” while odd-seeming to many Christians (and in many cases to other Pagans), aren’t really that unusual. When one religion is culturally dominant (as Christianity, in all its forms, is in America) syncretism often occurs among the other religions it encounters. While syncretism is a common occurrence within the history of polytheism, it is still considered very much taboo from a monotheist point of view. This was illustrated recently by Pope Benedict XVI who warned against inter-religious dialog that ventured into syncretism.

“In our world, evermore conditioned by the urgencies of globalization, a deep and demanding dialogue is necessary between cultures and religions. But this is not to diminish them with an impoverishing syncretism; rather, it is to enable them to develop in a climate of reciprocal respect so that each one works, according to its own charism, for the common good.”

These tensions point to very different perspectives on the nature of religious truth. While a polytheist may acknowledge that there are many paths to the divine (though they may think theirs is the best way), generally speaking most monotheist traditions warn against any activity that places foreign practices or powers on an equal level with their own.

“Monotheism was revolutionary and maybe, argues Leonard Shlain in the book “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess,” also dangerous. People who believed in many gods, he argues, respected the gods of other people and expected their gods to be respected in return. But to believe that only one God exists, an abstract God that different people might perceive in different ways, “loosed into the world an odious impulse,” he argues. The question of whose perception of the one deity is the correct one ‘has goaded monotheists to wage war with an intensity and purpose never witnessed in polytheistic cultures.'”

In the end, any lasting peaceful dialog between monotheist and polytheist points of view will have to address this underlying tension concerning the nature of religious truth (is their one or many ways). If this fundamental difference isn’t acknowledged misunderstandings and ongoing adversarial attitudes from both camps could prevail in the long term.