Archives For The Virgin Mary

Column: Black August

Heathen Chinese —  August 20, 2016 — 2 Comments

The dog days of summer are here, marked by the rising of the star Sirius in the morning sky, “the star they give the name of Orion’s Dog, which is brightest among the stars, and yet is wrought as a sign of evil and brings on the great fever for unfortunate mortals.”¹ On August 13, Sylville Smith was killed by a Milwaukee police officer. In the following two nights, eight businesses and numerous cars were burned, rocks and bottles were thrown at the police, and guns were fired on multiple occasions, resulting in at least one hospitalization. Meanwhile, the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center has alleged that the Black Guerilla Family (BGF) prison gang may be planning “to kill correctional officers and Aryan Brotherhood gang members” in commemoration of Black August.

george jackson

George Jackson 

Black August originated in the 1970s following the August 7, 1970 deaths of Jonathan Jackson, James McClain and William Christmas during a prisoner liberation and hostage-taking at the Marin County Courthouse and the August 21, 1971 death of George Jackson during a prison rebellion in San Quentin.

Prisoners participating in Black August “wore black armbands on their left arm and studied revolutionary works, focusing on the works of George Jackson. The brothers did not listen to the radio or watch television in August. Additionally, they didn’t eat or drink anything from sun-up to sundown; and loud and boastful behavior was not allowed. The brothers did not support the prison’s canteen. The use of drugs and alcoholic beverages was prohibited and the brothers held daily exercises.”

Black August also commemorates numerous other significant moments in black history including but not limited to the Haitian Revolution, which began on August 21, 1791 and was preceded by the Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman on August 14, the slave rebellions led by Gabriel Prosser on August 30, 1800 and by Nat Turner on August 21, 1831, the founding of the Underground Railroad on August 2, 1850 and the Watts rebellions in August, 1965. In their article on Black August, the Malcolm X Grassroots movement writes, “if we stand tall, it is because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors.” Like a flowering branch nourished by roots wrapped around the decaying bodies of the dead, the visible manifestations of revolt are supported by a vast invisible network of spirits and subterranean traditions.

A New Birth, At Once Into Life and Into Death

In his study of “The Traditional Chinese Mourning Categories,” anthropologist David K. Jordan notes that mourning is characterized by two indicators: “distinctive mourning clothing” and the requirement to “avoid normal activities, sometimes even subsistence activities.” We see the same two indicators in the black armbands worn by prisoners during Black August, and in their avoidance of a wide range of “normal activities,” including fasting.

The need to mourn the deaths of George and Jonathan Jackson was also seen clearly by both James Baldwin and Jean Genet. The friendship of the two writers and their writings about the Jacksons are analyzed in Bædan: journal of queer time travel. In No Name in the Street, Baldwin compared the grief of Georgia Jackson, Jonathan and George’s mother, to that of the Virgin Mary:

George Jackson has joined his beloved baby brother, Jon, in the royal fellowship of death. And one may say that Mrs. Georgia Jackson and the alleged mother of God have, at last, found something in common. Now, it is the Virgin, the alabaster Mary, who must embrace the despised black mother whose children are also the issue of the Holy Ghost.²

Jean Genet also wrote about Georgia Jackson, but in his “half-waking dream” that he experienced “a few hours after [George] Jackson’s death,” George and Jonathan were reborn from a different womb:

Jonathan and George violently came out of the prison, a stony womb, on waves of blood. […] It was not their mother who gave birth to them that night, for she was there, upright, impassive but alert, looking on. If it was a new birth, at once into life and into death, who but History was delivering the two black men covered, as with every birth, in blood.³

In a strange parallel, Baldwin declared that “an old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born. This birth will not be easy, and many of us are doomed to discover that we are exceedingly clumsy midwives.” He prophesied that “there will be bloody holding actions all over the world, for years to come: but the Western party is over, and the white man’s sun has set.” We are still seeing the “bloody holding actions” today, and we have indeed proven to be “exceedingly clumsy midwives,” but these struggles are nothing new.


Haitian Revolution. Battle of Snake Gully, 1802 [Public Domain]

Dance Groups or Associations Which Foster an Esprit de Corps

The Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman on August 14, 1791 also served as a kind of bloody Caesarean birth, for the Haitian Revolution began exactly one week later. The ceremony was first written about by Antoine Dalmas, a French doctor who fled to the United States and then wrote a report in 1794 based upon the interrogation of prisoners. That Dalmas’ portrayal of the ritual is unsympathetic is an understatement that should go without saying, but nonetheless, it is the first written account of the ceremony:

[They] celebrated a sort of feast or sacrifice in the middle of a wooded untilled plot on the Choiseul plantation, called le Caïman, where a very large number of Negroes assembled. An entirely black pig, surrounded by fetishes (fétiches), loaded with offerings each more bizarre than the other was the holocaust offered to the all-powerful spirit (génie) of the black race. The religious rituals that the negroes conducted while cutting its throat, the avidity with which they drank of his blood, the value they set in possessing a few of his bristles, a sort of talisman which, according to them, was to render them invulnerable, all serve to characterize Africans. That such an ignorant and besotted caste would make the superstitious rituals of an absurd and sanguinary religion serve as a prelude to the most frightful crimes was to be expected.4

Later accounts, such as that of the French abolitionist Civique de Gastine in 1819, would add further details such as the renunciation of Christianity as “the religion of their masters” and a collective oath “to perish rather than return to slavery,” but these writers were much further removed from the actual events in Haiti in 1791. It is, however, telling that “the second Haitian president, Alexandre Pétion, in 1814 prohibited the gathering of ‘all dance groups…or associations which foster an esprit de corps.’5 In other words, it is indisputable that subaltern religious organizations were seen as a threat by those who gained power after the revolution, which speaks to their significance and power during the revolution itself.

A quick survey of cross-cultural and historical comparisons shows that rituals intended to grant invulnerability were also associated with the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, Chinese spirit mediums in general, the Native American Ghost Dance, and the mainads of Dionysos written about in Euripides’s Bakkhai: against the mainads, “sharpened weapons drew no blood at all.”6 While Euripides was a playwright and may be accused of poetic license, the historical record shows that Dionysian worship was seen as a serious threat in Rome. Like Pétion in 1814 CE, the Roman Senate in 186 BCE banned all Bacchic cults not approved by the praetor urbanus, declaring that “henceforth they shall not form conspiracies among themselves, stir up any disorder, make mutual promises or agreements, or interchange pledges; no one shall observe the sacred rites either in public or private or outside the city, unless he comes to the praetor urbanus.”

The fear of conspiracies, disorder and oaths is obvious in the senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, and even more so in Livy. Just like Dalmas’s claim that Bois Caïman was a “prelude to the most frightful crimes,” Livy associated the Bacchic rites with criminality and violence:

With the added liberation of darkness, absolutely every crime and vice was performed there. The men had more sex with each other than with the women. Anyone who was less prepared for disgrace and slow to commit crimes was offered up as a sacrifice. To consider nothing wrong was the principal tenet of their religio. Men, as if insane, prophesied with wild convulsions of their bodies, married women in the dress of the Bacchants with streaming hair ran down to the Tiber carrying burning torches, which they dipped into the water and brought out still alight.

Like Dalmas, Livy was clearly an unsympathetic narrator, but the disapproval and disgust of these reactionary writers merely goes to show how seriously “dance groups or associations which foster an esprit de corps” have historically frightened the ruling classes.

Mainad. Kylix, 490–480 BCE, Vulci, Italy. [Public Domain]

Mainad. Kylix, 490–480 BCE, Vulci, Italy [Public Domain]

The Chaplains Corps of the War on Slavery

Rebelliously-inclined religious organizations were present in the Antebellum Southern United States as well, some of which are written about in Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford’s Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South. For example, one of the leaders in Gabriel Prosser’s rebellion testified at his trial that he was sent to recruit the “outlandish people” who were “supposed to deal with witches and wizards,”7 and thereby recruit the sorcerers as well.

Furthermore, the early black nationalist Martin Delany (1812–1885) wrote of a council of conjure men and women known as “the Head” located within the Great Dismal Swamp of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. The Head performed rituals in a cave in the swamp, where they also kept a large sacred serpent. The Head played a major role in the initiation of new conjure men and women: “in order to be ordained as conjure men or women, non-maroons were forced to (at least temporarily) escape their bondage and find the council.”8 This initiatory escape, even if temporary, served to forge ties between the maroons in the swamps and the rebels on the plantations.

The Head was involved in numerous slave insurrections and “considered themselves to be the chaplains corps of the war on slavery. The Head deeply revered the memory of Nat Turner, and claimed to have been associated with his effort. As young conjure men they had fought alongside General Gabriel and took pride in that action forty years later.”9 By venerating the ancestors of the struggle and keeping their memories alive, the Head contributed to future revolts as well.

Shirley and Stafford argue that the maroon communities that were rooted in the Great Dismal Swamp were crucial to the exceptionally high number of large uprisings that broke out in the Tidewater region of Virginia and North Carolina, and that diverse and syncretic spiritual practices were an inherent and central part of maroon social organization.10 Like the Eolh-sedge of the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, the maroon community “is mostly to be found in a marsh; it grows in the water and makes a ghastly wound, covering with blood every warrior who touches it.”

Nat Turner. [Public Domain]

Nat Turner [Public Domain]

Let the Crops Rot, Betray the Whites

These are but a few of the stories and ancestors invoked by Black August. And even after August 31, the memory of previous uprisings guides the struggles of the present. On September 9, the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, prisoners are calling for a general strike of prison labor across the United States:

Slavery is alive and well in the prison system, but by the end of this year, it won’t be anymore. This is a call to end slavery in America. This call goes directly to the slaves themselves. We are not making demands or requests of our captors, we are calling ourselves to action. To every prisoner in every state and federal institution across this land, we call on you to stop being a slave, to let the crops rot in the plantation fields, to go on strike and cease reproducing the institutions of your confinement.

This is a call for a nation-wide prisoner work stoppage to end prison slavery, starting on September 9th, 2016. They cannot run these facilities without us.

While the prisoners address their fellow prisoners directly, solidarity actions proliferate outside the walls of the prisons. But the conditions of imprisonment extend beyond the facilities themselves, as Milwaukee demonstrates clearly. Jean Genet’s words after the death of George Jackson ring as true today as they did in 1971:

We must look closely…at all imprisoned blacks—whether in jail or the ghetto—who are in danger at every moment of being assassinated like George and Jonathan Jackson or of being wasted away by the white world. In fact, we must learn to betray the whites that we are.11

Genet, despite declaring George and Jonathan “two black Gemini,” eschewed the language of mythology and instead called this task a “human labor directed against the dense and sparkling mythology of the white world.” Nonetheless, I maintain that the war is waged on all fronts simultaneously, and that the spiritual realms are inseparable from the social and the material.


  1. Homer, Iliad 22.29-31, translated by Richmond Lattimore.
  2. Quoted in Bædan 110.
  3. Quoted in Bædan 111.
  4. Quoted in Elizabeth McAlister, “From Slave Revolt to a Blood Pact with Satan: The Evangelical Rewriting of Haitian History” 9.
  5. Ibid 8.
  6. Euripides, Bakkhai, translated by Anne Carson 40.
  7. Quoted in Dixie Be Damned 43.
  8. Ibid 44.
  9. Hugo Leaming, quoted in Dixie Be Damned 44.
  10. Ibid 21.
  11. Quoted in Bædan 111.

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This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.

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.

If the power of divinity was to be measured in the number of adherents, in the number of times they are invoked, in the number of images, statues, and icons depicting them, then Mary would be the most powerful of goddesses. The Christian Theotokos (“the one who gives birth to God”) has become ubiquitous, ecumenical, and multi-religious; an object of veneration for staunchly conservative Catholics,  jaded post-modernists, indigenous peoples in Mexico, and Vodouisants alike. In her new book “Full of Grace: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art, and Life” author Judith Dupre takes us on a journey through the art, history, and traditions that surround Mary, dedicating an early chapter to the connections between Mary and pre-Christian pagan goddesses.

“While Mary’s role in salvation can be detected in writings before the Council of Ephesus, the title Theotokos is from Isis, who had been called both the “Mother of the God” and the “Great Virgin.” Isis’s popularity, in fact, peaked in the eastern Mediterranean just as Christianity began to spread. When Mary replaced Isis in popular devotion, she also assimilated her symbols, an appropriation that can be observed frequently in the formation of Christian iconography. The familiar description of Mary from the first-century Book of Revelation as a woman who is “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” correlates closely to a second-century description of Isis, who emerges from the sea, her ringlets crowned with a diadem, on her forehead a moonlike disc, and wearing a mantle scattered with stars and a full moon that radiated flames of fire. (This is also how Our Lady of Guadalupe would appear, centuries later and half a world away, on Juan Diego’s cloak.)”

Far from being a dry academic tome, the book is filled with quotations, poetry, art, and a travelogue of visits to Mary shrines and places of sightings. Dupre counts herself as a devotee to Mary, and credits Our Lady of Guadalupe (and image of Mary long thought to be a Christianized version of the Aztec moon goddess Tonantzin) with saving the life of her son.

“I’d like to think of it as a book of hours, providing different glimpses of Mary that can be contemplated, savored, in light of a number of life circumstances that we often have little choice but to accept. Most of all, I wanted to make Mary real because that’s how I’ve experienced her in my own life, not as a distant figure from the past but as a loving mother and a living example of empowered womanhood. In these times, which are difficult for so many, Mary models an ideal way to live—faithfully, with grace and radical acceptance of what is and what cannot be changed. She has responded with such wit to my many prayers that I can’t help but think she also has a good sense of humor. So I think she’d appreciate Full of Grace—after all, what other book on Mary quotes Woody Allen, provides a recipe for Italian pepper biscuits, and tells you where to get your hair done in Palestine? Mary is real in every way!”

With the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe fast approaching, not to mention Christmas, this is a perfect time for Pagans to consider the place of Mary in our world today, and how the veneration of her many aspects and images represents the divine feminine for billions.

A Few Quick Notes

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 17, 2009 — 3 Comments

I have some other stories of note to share with you today, starting with the sad news that actor Edward Woodward, 79, passed away yesterday due to complications from pneumonia. Woodward is well-known to many Pagan film lovers as “Christian copper” Sgt. Howie from the original cult-classic 1973 film “The Wicker Man” (and better-known to most Americans as the lead in the 1980s vigilante series “The Equalizer”).

Edward Woodward in "The Wicker Man"

At news of his passing, “Wicker Man” director Robin Hardy said that Woodward was “one of the greatest actors of his generation”, while co-star Sir Christopher Lee called him “a good friend and a splendid actor”. Matt Holmes at “Obsessed With Film” says that Woodward (as Sgt. Howie) committed the most memorable “gut-wrenching” on-screen death ever, while Pagan film reviewer Peg Aloi offers a touching farewell.

“Woodward is remembered by many of his colleagues as a kind, warm man who told wonderful stories, as well as being a consummate actor. His distinguished career will long be remembered. In particular, his role as Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man will be remembered for its complexity, subtlety and power. Howie is a repressive, seemingly cold-mannered police officer who eventually reveals stunning emotional depth and passion. Woodward’s portrayal unfolds with delicious tension and suspense, as the film builds to its shocking ending.”

Here’s to you Mr. Woodward, thank you for your work, may you find peace across the veil.

Turning from the sad news of this passing, to the optimistic idea of deeper understanding and communication between faiths, we have an interesting editorial from the national Catholic weekly America. There, Catholic priest and Harvard professor Francis X. Clooney, S.J., who has argued in the past against “bland secularism” at Catholic colleges, favoring instead a “religiously diverse” campus, talks about his experiences teaching the class “Hindu Goddesses and the Blessed Virgin Mary”.

“The mix of the course is thus quite extraordinary: some wonderful Hindu and Christian texts read by a great group of students, as we discuss a wide range of issues about scripture, our images of God and humanity, and what to make of the varied religious experiences of the human race. Harvard is not the place wherein to reach single, definite conclusions about truth, but I think that this learning across religious boundaries does open us to truth, to Truth. By studying the traditions of the goddesses and Mary together, we understand both more clearly; those of us who are Catholic at Harvard find ourselves brought closer to devotion to Mary, who holds her own in every discussion. The goddesses too fare well, though each of us has to make up her or his own mind on how to appropriate these goddess traditions.”

Perhaps there’s room in this world for Mary and the goddesses? That seems to be at least partially the gist, he even recounts how a group of students sing hymns to both Mary and the goddesses before each class, and how both the Catholics and the goddess-worshipers have deepened their understanding and practice. To read more about Clooney’s work, you should read his essay “Interreligious Dialogue: Goddess in the Classroom”, and check out his book, “Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary”.

In a final “War on Christmas” note, it seems the American Family Assn. is issuing its yearly call to boycott The Gap for not saying “Christmas” even though the clothing chain’s silly wince-inducing holiday ad name-checks several yule-tide holidays, including “Christmas”, “Hanukka”, and “Solstice”.

“It’s unlikely the new Gap ads will placate the psalm-singers in Tupelo. After all, in the spirit of inclusiveness, Christmas is mentioned in the same breath as Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and solstice. The winter solstice, as everyone knows, is a pagan celebration, so — viewed through a peculiarly warped lens — the Gap ad puts Christians on the same level as a bunch of blue-paintedheathens dancing around a Yule log drinking mead out of a stag horn.”

The LA Times is dead-on the money, as the AFA has issued a boycott update saying the Christmas-invoking ad is “completely dismissive and disrespectful to those who celebrate the meaning and spirit of Christmas.” Yes, whatever happened to all those tasteful clothing-chain holiday ads that didn’t cheapen the holy Winter months by trying to sell you loads of stuff.

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

Despite the many theological and political problems I have with Roman Catholicism, I do carry a soft spot for the faith. I was baptised a Catholic, and many of my family members and loved ones are still active church-goers. Plus, I’ve always been fascinated with their rich history of saints, and the unflinching social justice work of people like Dorothy Day.  Best of all, they have their very own active and thriving goddess tradition (at least that is what we Pagans would call it) in the form of Mary, mother of Jesus. Over the years I’ve kept my eye on the quiet movement to see Mary (officially) elevated to Co-Redemptrix (and Mediatrix), giving her a nearly (but not quite) equal role in the redemption of humanity. Now Pope Benedict XVI seems to be giving hints that he might be ready to make her status as Co-Redemptrix an official dogma.

The Assumption of the Virgin by Rubens.

“When Pope Benedict XVI told a crowd in St. Peter’s Square in April that the Virgin Mary “silently followed her son Jesus to Calvary, taking part with great suffering in his sacrifice, thus cooperating in the mystery of redemption and becoming mother of all believers,” most listeners probably heard nothing remarkable in the statement. After all, devotion to Mary is a pervasive element of the Catholic faith, and one of the features that most clearly distinguishes it from Protestantism. Yet for one group of devotees, Benedict’s statement was a milestone — a sign that he had moved one step closer to granting their wish for a new dogma on Mary’s contribution to human salvation. At least 7 million Catholics from more than 170 countries, including hundreds of bishops and cardinals, have reportedly signed petitions urging the pope to proclaim Mary “the Spiritual Mother of All Humanity, the coredemptrix with Jesus the redeemer, mediatrix of all graces with Jesus the one mediator, and advocate with Jesus Christ on behalf of the human race.” In other words, the Virgin Mary — though always subordinate to and dependent on the will of Christ — plays an active, unique and irreplaceable role in helping her son deliver mankind from sin and death.”

The article mentions that many believe John Paul II wanted to make Mary Co-Redemptrix during his Papacy but was advised not to in order to not trouble the waters of Christian ecumenicism. However, some proponents of Mary as Co-Redemptrix say it would ultimately help ecumenical efforts because it would prove they don’t see Mary as part of the Holy Trinity.

“This would bring new clarity that Catholics do not adore Mary as a goddess,” Miravalle said. “It would underscore what Catholics do believe — that she is your spiritual mother — but at the same time that she is not the fourth person of the Blessed Trinity.”

While Benedict has criticized the idea of Mary as Co-Redemptrix in the past, he could be changing his tune in order to continue his efforts to unite and strengthen the Catholic Church. After all, Marians are often the staunchest, and in many cases, the most conservative, of Catholics and Benedict hasn’t seemed to mind courting controversy in reaching out to them. Besides, the fringe Protestant groups who demonize Catholics for worshipping the “Queen of Heaven”, and take credit for killing prominent Catholics with their prayers, aren’t going to stop simply because Benedict holds off on making Mary Co-Redemptrix. Why not officially acknowledge that which many rank-and-file already believe?

It remains to be seen if Benedict is truly sending out a “dog whistle” to Marians that he is with them, or if it is merely wishful thinking on the part of the Co-Redemptrix supporters. Certainly those of us who are interested in how non-Pagan religions engage with the divine feminine (whether they officially acknowledge her as that or not) will be keeping an eye out.