Archives For Washington state

Column: Many Gods West

Heathen Chinese —  August 22, 2015 — 19 Comments

Acknowledgement and thanks to the spirits of the land and the water, to the Nisqually and other Coast Salish-speaking peoples on whose sovereign land we were uninvited guests, to my ancestors, to my gods, and to the ancestors and deities and other allies of the humans at the conference. Thanks to my friend and traveling companion. Thanks to all those who showed me hospitality and friendship, and to the organizers of the conference: Niki Whiting, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus and Rhyd Wildermuth.

The Many Gods West (MGW) gathering was held at the Governor Hotel in Olympia, Washington from July 31st to August 2nd. Over the course of the weekend, 180 humans attended, along with innumerable gods and spirits and crows and other kinds of beings. The conference included twenty presentations, nine public rituals, a keynote address by Morpheus Ravenna, a musical and terpsichorean performance at a local venue, open hours at Skaði’s shrine in one of the hotel rooms, and a communal shrine accessible at most points throughout the day. As at any gathering, many private conversations were held as well, alliances were strengthened, previously separate threads of thought and experience were woven together.

many gods west
Many attendees and presenters have written about their experiences at MGW, or published the texts of their presentations.
These individual accounts are shards in a mosaic-in-progress, strands of wool on a spindle. There are patterns at play here, subterranean and subcutaneous, a fluid and shifting battle formation…if one is trained to notice such things.

The opening ritual was entitled “Many Lands, Many Ancestors, Many Gods, Many People/s.” Similarly to Reclaiming’s practice of mingling the Waters of the World, participants were invited to approach the communal shrine and pour water from a source near their home into a large basin. Soil from the many localities participants had traveled from were similarly mixed in another bowl. Each and every person has some sort of relationship with their local land and water, whether they recognize that relationship or not. This section of the opening ritual was intended to acknowledge and honor those relationships.

Any gathering is likely to be attended by a significant number of people who live in close geographical proximity to the gathering’s location: the logistics of travel dictate this. However, while individuals did travel from the Midwest and the East Coast and other regions to attend, this gathering’s very name reflected a deliberate intention to focus on the West Coast. The concept of “regional cultus” is being discussed in polytheist circles currently. “The West Coast” is a broad term, and certainly contains many smaller regions within it. The entire coast, however, is now united by the shared experience of heatwave and drought and wildfire. As those who live here know, however, from the ashes, new growth springs: a proliferation of new regionalisms, praying for transformation like the knobcone pine, resilient like the manzanita and the madrone.

A fallen madrone (also called madrona or arbutus) provided the wood for the figures which enshrined the ancestors of the conference attendees. Figures carved with faces enshrining Female, Male, Gender-variant, Warrior and Spirit-worker ancestors were passed around the room, allowing each participant who wished to the opportunity to honor their own ancestors in these various categories personally. Meanwhile, the room resounded and reverberated with the song, “Ignis corporis infirmat; ignis sed animae perstat” (“the Fire of the body diminishes; but the fire of the soul endures!”). The Ancestors Of And In The Land and the Dead Who Are Not Yet Ancestors were honored on the communal shrine as well, though their figures were not passed around the room.

Last, but certainly never least in a room full of polytheists, individuals were able to enshrine images of deities and other spirits they have relationships with on the communal shrine. The key word, as ever, is “relationship.” Morpheus Ravenna’s keynote address, entitled “Deep Polytheism: On the Agency and Sovereignty of the Gods,” reiterated this theme with the grace of poetry and the force of a smith’s hammer or a chieftain’s axe. Not just any archetypal “smith,” or any archetypal “chieftain,” however. Morpheus took care to introduce Goibniu and the Dagda—two gods she has devotional relationships with—to her audience, and to tell stories about their individual personalities and pasts, pointing out that “Living beings don’t just exist, they have stories. They have an origin, they come from somewhere in particular, and they experience an arc of change.”

And of course, they exert change upon the world as well. The mark of the Dagda’s axe can be seen in the cleft of every oak in Ireland. Morpheus argued that the gods leave similar marks on the landscapes of our psyches: “Even when we think the Gods are gone, Their marks on us remain. We ourselves are a map shaped and carved by Their memory.” But human beings have our own agency and sovereignty as well, and Morpheus eloquently wove this deeper understanding of reciprocity into her description of what “true relationship” might look like:

In being another of the peoples that have worshiped, fed and sung songs to Them, we become part of Their stories. This is what comes from engaging with the Gods on this level. This is true relationship. […] They become part of our story. We begin seeking to create a story together, a shared future.

One story, one shared future, found its roots deep in the blood-soaked battlefields of ancient Gaul and the beginning of a new chapter in a dimly lit room at Many Gods West. Three members of the Coru Cathubodua, Morpheus and Brennos and Rynn, conducted a ritual in honor of the Gaulish goddess for whom their priesthood is named. After Cathubodua, the Battle Crow, was worshiped through polyphonic song and offering, those individuals who were called received the Warrior’s Mark from her priestesses and priest. A call “aims at those who can hear it.” That is its power. There is another power in standing and bearing witness, as many of those present at the ritual chose to do. As Rhyd Wildermuth said, “meaning is never a solitary act.”

mgw communal shrine

MGW Community Shring [Photo Credit: Finnchuill]

Rhyd’s talk on “meaning” began with a rejection of the concept of absolute Truth, which, Midas-like, fatally corrupts all that it touches: “Looking for the material being-ness of a thing, rather than its tapestry of meaning, is to destroy it.” For example, a body undergoing vivisection—a cruel name, as it quickly turns into the dissection of a corpse: “What are you, really, when we get to your core existence? A dead and dis-membered pile of bloody muscle and gore.” Better to recognize that “There was [and is] no Truth, only potential meaning.”

Heimlich A. Laguz’s lecture, “Dreaming, Death, and Memory: Sketches for a Heathen Cosmology,” based upon his 2010 essay in Hex Magazine, touched upon the concept of “dis-memberment” during the same time slot that Finnchuill spoke about the history of “disenchantment” and the practice of reenchantment. Their presentations were held in adjacent rooms, in fact. Heimlich utilized a pun to highlight the subtle relationship between “dis-memberment” and memory, “When we re-member the essence of this dis-membered world we discover that death and life are one.”

Heimlich began by pointing out that the Germanic cosmological concept of the World Tree does not exist in some sort of independent stasis, but is watered by “the wells of Urd (Past), Mimir (Memory), and Hvergelmir (the ‘bubbling cauldron’ from which the rivers of the world arise and beside which the death-dragon Nidhogg dwells).” As a living system, the newly-created memories of the present necessarily flow “back down into the wells again to create new layers of history.”

Within this dynamic ecological cycle, death is a source of fertility, and it is memory that “has the power to carry the dead back into the world of the living.” Heimlich told the story of the shepherd Hallbjorn, who slept many nights upon the grave mound of the poet Thorleif, with the intention of writing a poem about Thorleif, though his skills in that area were few. Eventually, Thorleif appeared to Hallbjorn in a dream and taught him how to write poetry. Heimlich pointed out that “poetry is a force of unfettered life and excitation, and the idea that it could be sought through necromantic communication is potent and fascinating.” Furthermore, sleep is associated with death, and Hallbjorn learned poetry in a dream. With such connections as these (and many more), Heimlich deftly tied together the three major themes of his lecture.

Death and memory were also powerful forces behind Sean Donahue’s talk on “The Rattling at the Gates: The Dead as Allies in Resistance,” subsequently typed up and titled “Restoring Life to Death.” Sean spoke of two kinds of death: one beautiful and life-nourishing, and the other untimely and traumatic. He spoke of the salmon dying after they spawn: “Like sacred kings, their bodies and their blood nourish the land.” He spoke of the salmon dying this year before they spawn, slain by the drought and the heat. Those killed before their time are restless, denied the beauty of dignified death, prevented from moving on.

Sean quoted his Colombian friend Hector Mondragon: “Hector said “My murdered compañeros were killed twice . . .” once by bullets or machetes or bombs, and once by a world that refused to acknowledge their lives and their deaths.” He spoke of the importance of recognition and memory: “Witnessing and remembering are the beginning of restoring sacredness to the death around us to enable it to feed new life.” Morpheus used similar language during her speech, “the 20th century had already forgotten that the Gods are alive.” But some people never forgot, and others are now waking from amnesia into the dream of remembrance.

Once forgotten, but still alive, still powerful, and newly resurgent, splendid in their beauty: the Matronae, “a collective of indigenous Germanic and Celtic goddesses who were worshipped syncretically in the Roman Empire,” honored in a devotional ritual led by their priestesses River Devora and Rynn Fox. A well was set up in the middle of the room, filled with water from Olympia’s Artesian Well, surrounded by roses and other flowers. Libations of goat’s milk were poured. Singing, dancing: “Mothers of victory, Matronae. Mothers of the tribes, Matronae.” Oracular trance, messages both for the group and for individual petitioners. Wishes made on pennies, tossed into the well. Weaving.

These words you’re reading now? Merely a thin and tiny thread in a vast tapestry.

The various report-backs on MGW delighted in using the word “many” in their titles. But while there are “many” experiences to be remembered, there is also “more,” for relationship is a continual, ongoing process. There is more work to be done, there are more battles to be fought.

Back in June I wrote about how a initiative in Washington state on the issue of same-sex marriage could see the first real test of a post-Christian majority at the ballot box. More than half of Washington’s citizens don’t belong to any formal religion, becoming part of the demographic known as “nones,” and these “unchurched” have increasingly gotten more and more attention as their numbers swell. In addition, nones in the Pacific Northwest have their own special character according to the authors of “Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia,” they are “eclectically, informally, often deeply ‘spiritual.’” Specifically, New Age and nature-oriented spirituality loom large among “nones” here.

“According to the just-published “Cascadia: the Elusive Utopia.” … a lot of these “nones” in the Pacific Northwest are actually very spiritual, walking a path of their own making, but not into organized religions and churches. Sociology professor Mark Shibley of Southern Oregon University wrote the lead essay called “The Promise and Limits of Secular Spirituality in Cascadia.” “This region is different. The people here are not as connected to religious institutions,” he says. The alternative spirituality here shows itself in two main ways, Shibley notes: “nature spirituality,” such as you see in the secular environmental movement, and the more well-known New Age spirituality, where the gaze is shifted inward.”

When I wrote my initial piece, I asserted that “if Cascadian nones are truly the New Age, nature religion, do-it-yourselfers that researchers assert, then this could be a preview for what a truly post-Christian pluralistic political struggle will look like.” So, with the clock ticking down on the November elections, where do we stand on this ballot initiative that would potentially stop gay marriage in Washington state?  A September 10th poll says that 56% of Washington voters support upholding legal same-sex marriage in their state, while only  38% favor eliminating equal marriage rights, 6% are undecided. This is remarkable data, even in a traditionally “liberal” state like Washington, as voter referendums on same-sex marriage have always favored limiting legal marriage rights to opposite sex couples.

 

Further, Washington isn’t alone in making history with a popular vote for same-sex marriage instead of against it. Maine, Maryland, and Minnesota are also poised to make breakthroughs on this particular issue if the latest polls are to be believed.

Polling numbers suggest a majority of voters support legalizing same-sex marriage on the ballots in Maine, Maryland and Washington, while Minnesota straddles the fence. Should any of the states approve the ballots, it will be the first time gay marriage passes by popular vote as opposed to going through the courts or legislature. “We’re feeling positive. The reality is, we haven’t won a ballot measure on marriage yet,” Human Rights Campaign state legislative director Sarah Warbelow told NBC News. “I think it’s very reasonable and realistic to expect that we’ll win one or more of these ballot measures; certainly the polling suggests that all four are … a possibility.”

Sticking with my “nones” theory, 25% of Maine residents are religiously unaffiliated according to the Pew Forum, while the 2010 US Religion Census shows that area also dominated by the “unchurched.” Likewise, Maryland’s numbers are also highly religiously unaffiliated (you can download a larger version of the map below here). So, like Washington, they could prefigure a “post-Christian” vote in terms of hot-button social issues like gay marriage.

However, it’s Washington that I’m most interested in because of the trends that point to the “nones” in the Pacific Northwest being more like “us” Pagans in inclination and spiritual orientation. If you want tea leaves to read over what a “Pagan” vote might look like, this might be our chance to witness it in action. Of course, this vote could go the other way, as elections are largely about who’s more motivated, and opponents to same-sex unions are often highly motivated and well funded. Also, with this being a presidential election year, enthusiasm for the candidate(s) who supports same-sex marriage will also be a factor. Still this is a very good sign that a demographic tide may have turned in Washington. We’ll check back in as new data emerges.

Over the years I’ve written a lot about individuals who don’t claim adherence to any religion, dubbed “nones” by journalists and researchers. This group has exploded to around 16% of the population in the United States, and defies easy categorization. What we do know is that their growth is most explosive among younger people, and that “nones” aren’t anti-religioun per se, simply against what they feel institutionalized religion has become (ie polarized and fixated on culture war issues). Now, thanks to a ballot initiative in Washington state on gay marriage, it looks like we might see the first skirmish between socially conservative Christian voters, and this diverse grouping of the non-religious.

Gov. Chris Gregoire signing same-sex marriage law. Photo: Elaine Thompson/AP

Gov. Chris Gregoire signing same-sex marriage law. Photo: Elaine Thompson/AP

According to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census, more than half of the state’s 6.8 million residents don’t belong to a religious group. Preserve Marriage Washington, the organization behind the gay marriage petition (Referendum 74), is a coalition of community and faith groups, including the Washington State Catholic Conference. “Almost 4.4 million people are unclaimed, so that’s the group, that if they vote, will decide this referendum,” said Patricia O’Connell Killen, editor of “Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone,” and academic vice president at Gonzaga University. “Any political issue, whether it passes or fails, depends by and large on how the vast majority of these unchurched are persuaded.”

In short, those who want to preserve the right for same-sex couples to marry in Washington need to reach out to Cascadian “nones” to win this ballot initiative. What are “nones” in the Pacific Northwest like? According to the authors of “Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia,” they are “eclectically, informally, often deeply ‘spiritual.'” Specifically, New Age and nature-oriented spirituality loom large among “nones” here.

“According to the just-published “Cascadia: the Elusive Utopia.” … a lot of these “nones” in the Pacific Northwest are actually very spiritual, walking a path of their own making, but not into organized religions and churches. Sociology professor Mark Shibley of Southern Oregon University wrote the lead essay called “The Promise and Limits of Secular Spirituality in Cascadia.” “This region is different. The people here are not as connected to religious institutions,” he says. The alternative spirituality here shows itself in two main ways, Shibley notes: “nature spirituality,” such as you see in the secular environmental movement, and the more well-known New Age spirituality, where the gaze is shifted inward.”

Normally, whenever same-sex marriage has gone to the ballot boxes, it works against supporters of marriage equality. It is so successful that it has become something of a tactic to boost voter turnout among social conservatives during important election cycles (though that assertion is being questioned). This year, Washington joins Maryland, Maine and Minnesota in putting this issue up for a vote. However, we may see a reversal of fortunes in Washington where a majority of voters believe same-sex couples should be able to get married, and where gay marriage rights have bipartisan support. With a 4 percentage point margin, the outcome will almost certainly rest on turnout, and who will be able to motivate their supporters better.

Christian adherents as percentage of state population (2010).

Christian adherents as percentage of state population (2010).

Conservative Christians are rightfully praised for their ability in getting out the vote among their supporters. It is how the Religious Right, the Moral Majority, and other permutations of this bloc have been able to wield so much influence in the Republican party, and in politics in general. Washington in 2012 may see the beginning of a challenge to that legendary ground-game, but only if supporters of same-sex marriage know how to reach out to their “nones.” For once, Pagan organizations, New Age institutions, Unitarian-Universalist churches, alternative health outlets, and other touch-points for the non-religious demographic in Washington could be vital in mobilizing groups that are traditionally distrustful or apathetic about the political process. Because if Cascadian nones are truly the New Age, nature religion, do-it-yourselfers that researchers assert, then this could be a preview for what a truly post-Christian pluralistic political struggle will look like.

I’m in Seattle, Washington this weekend, part of the team that’s putting on FaerieCon West, a transformational celebration of music, myth, fantasy, and, of course, faerie. While FaerieCon West, and events like it, are not explicitly Pagan, the openness and embrace of Pagan culture can’t be missed by anyone whose eyes are open to it.

While there are many presentations and performances I’m looking forward to, I’m perhaps most excited about participating in a panel discussion with Jeet Kei Leung, who’s writing a book entitled “Dancing Together into The Great Shift: Transformational Festivals & The New Evolutionary Culture”, and once again getting to interview famed urban fantasy author Charles de Lint, best known for his “Newford” novels. I hope to bring you photos, interviews, and coverage from what I’m hoping will be amazing weekend. If you’re in the Seattle area, I hope you’ll drop by, experience it for yourself, and say hello!

In the meantime, before I head off, here’s a few quick Pagan news notes that I thought you should know about.

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

[The following is a guest post by Dr. Amy Hale. Dr. Hale is an anthropologist specializing in contemporary Celtic cultures, with an emphasis on modern Cornwall and contemporary Esoteric culture and history. She recently attending the Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle and files this report. All the photos used in this post were provided by Anima Nocturna via EBC Administrator William J. Kiesel.]

A couple of weekends ago, on the 10th and 11th of September, Seattle was again host to the Esoteric Book Conference, superbly organized by William Kiesel of Ouroborous Press and Catamara Rosarium of Rosarium Blends. Now in its third year, the EBC is becoming the go to event for thoughtful discussion on a variety of esoteric topics ranging from historical approaches to well considered practice. For many visitors, the highlight is on the books. The showroom presented 22 esoteric publishers such as Fulgur Limited, Ouroborous Press, Concrescent Press, Mandrake, Immanion and Ars Obscura, who featured their back catalogues and new releases. It provided a fine opportunity for excited shoppers to see what is new on the market, find a previously owned treasure, and also to peruse and fondle some exquisitely crafted specialist books. Authors had the opportunity to promote their work as well, for example, on Saturday afternoon, Brandy Williams launched her exciting new offering The Woman Magician hot off the presses from Llewellyn.

William Kiesel of Ouroborous Press and Catamara Rosarium of Rosarium Blends.

William Kiesel and Catamara Rosarium.

The EBC program of eleven speakers this year was ironically light on women presenters, but women featured heavily as topics of interest and exploration. Just to mention a few here, Brian Butler spoke on the life of the magician and artist Marjorie Cameron, wife of Jack Parsons, and shared with the audience some amazing rare film footage that demonstrated the power of this intriguing and compelling magician. Vere Chappell presented a standout and very touching lecture on the life and work of Ida Craddock, a pioneer of sexual education for both men and women who tragically became a martyr to the cause of sexual expression. Barbara Cormack led a refreshing and solid panel discussion of women involved with the practice of the Golden Dawn magical system. Another highlight of the lectures was the talk by Alchemist Robert Bartlett, who delighted the audience with a brief romp through the history of alchemy and shared some wonderful illustrations of his own practical alchemical work.

Barbara Cormack leading a panel discussion of women involved with the practice of the Golden Dawn magical system.

A panel discussion of women involved with the practice of the Golden Dawn magical system.

The EBC isn’t just about feeding the mind, however, there was plenty on offer to stimulate all the senses. Performance artist Oryelle engaged the audience with his multimedia piece Solve et Coagula, and the Saturday evening event showcased passionate performances from Amodali, LUX Interna and Waldteufel. EBC also hosts an art show, ranging from the ceramics of Seattle based artist and magician Denny Sargent to the whimsical and delightful prints of Liv Rainey-Smith and the oils of Daniel Schulke. One can only hope that this section of the EBC keeps expanding! On Sunday night the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn hosted a prosperity ritual based on the opening of their Neophyte Hall, which gave conference participants a rare opportunity to experience a full blown, formal Golden Dawn ritual.

Amodali performing at the Esoteric Book Conference.

Amodali performing at the Esoteric Book Conference.

Overall the Esoteric Book Conference is a fantastic event which is becoming very well beloved by its regular attendees. I look forward to seeing what next year will bring.

One positive outcome regarding the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision regarding Patrick McCollum’s case against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, is that it has focused our community’s attention on the plight of Pagans and Heathens serving time in prisons. Recently, the Druid fellowship Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) sponsored a Pagan festival at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, WA. Together with representatives from Druid, Asatru, and Wiccan organizations, a somewhat unprecedented moment of fellowship and outreach was able to take place.

druids

Druids and Druid chaplains in prison.

Here’s the press release sent to me by ADF Archdruid, Rev. Kirk Thomas:

In what may be a first, but at least was a very rare event, a Pagan/Heathen festival took place on Saturday, June 11, 2011 at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, WA. Since the men there cannot go to a festival, a festival was brought to them.

Organized by ADF Archdruid, Rev. Kirk Thomas, and Chaplain Eric Askren of Coyote Ridge, this festival, training, and resource event brought together experienced members of the Pagan/Heathen community along with chaplains from three other Washington State prisons for a fun and informative day with the men of Coyote Ridge. This was not only a great opportunity for the men, but it also gave the chaplains from other prisons the opportunity to learn first-hand about these fast-growing minority religions.

Rev. Thomas, a regular volunteer and the Sponsor for the Druids in the prison, brought together representatives from the Druid, Wiccan, and Asatru communities for this event.

Ashleen O’Gaea, from Arizona, attended to give workshops and run rituals for the Wiccans. A third degree priestess since 1990, Ashleen is a co-founder of Mother Earth Ministries, a Tucson based Neopagan prison ministry, as well as a well-known Wiccan author whose latest book, Enchantment Encumbered, deals specifically with prison outreach for Wiccans. Patricia Lafayllve, from Connecticut, attended to give workshops and run rituals for the Asatru. She is a past Steerswoman for The Troth and the founder of their Lore Program, and is a Troth-certified Godwoman. As an author, she has written on the goddess Freya, contributed to two books for the Troth, and has published many Heathen-themed articles to journals such as Idunna.

Rev. Ian Corrigan and Rev. Sue Parker, both from Ohio, attended for the Druids. Ian is a past ADF Archdruid and a frequent contributor to the ADF Journal, Oak Leaves, as well as an author of books on magic, liturgy and trance. Sue is an accomplished liturgist and gave a workshop on Indo-European goddesses. Together, Ian and Sue make up the musical group, Awen, and they gave a concert for the men on Saturday night.

Each faith group met separately for workshops indoors and for ritual in the prison’s outdoor stone circles, with everyone coming together in the evening for an ecumenical Unity Rite and a roundtable discussion on the subject of Magic led by the visiting Pagan/Heathen presenters.

Also attending were Joenne McGeer, head of the religious and family prison programs for the state, and Barbara Lauderdale, a sponsor for Wiccan and Asatru groups in prisons on the western (opposite) side of Washington.

Asatru prisoners and their chaplains.

Asatru prisoners and their chaplains.

For those who want to hear more about this festival, Rev. Kirk Thomas has also posted a more personal run-down regarding the event, how it came to be, and what his experiences were.

“All in all this festival day lasted 13 hours. It was intense, but fulfilling, and I hope that similar prison festivals can take place someday in other prisons and for other incarcerated people. The mere fact that five prominent Pagans were willing to come and celebrate for a day with the men gave them a sense of validation, an understanding that they truly aren’t forgotten, and that they, too, matter in the world. And this can only be a good thing!”

In the end it will take more than litigation to bring about a sea-change in how Pagan and Heathen prisoners are treated (though legal action is also an important tool at this time). It will entail a deeper engagement from our Pagan leaders, clergy, and communities to make outreach efforts stick, and overcome generations of institutional ignorance and prejudices regarding our faiths. I think this effort, and recent efforts by other high-profile Pagan leaders like Starhawk, working in concert with our often unsung volunteer chaplains, can start to turn things around. That in conjunction with the important work chaplains like Patrick McCollum and his legal team are currently engaged in provide hope that our institutional facilities will someday  offer the spiritual and religious guidance and support necessary for Pagan and Heathen prisoners to embrace personal reform and rehabilitation.

At the end of April a Colville, Washington man and his 14-year-old stepdaughter were found dead, the seeming results of a murder-suicide or mutual suicide pact. The two admitted in letters left behind that they were in love, and much was made of the fact that both allegedly claimed to be adherents of Wicca.

“Ann Lykke, 36, said she found letters after the two disappeared that indicated they were having a romantic relationship. “I didn’t believe it until I found the proof when she was gone,” Ann Lykke said in a brief telephone interview Thursday from Colville. Lykke said her husband and daughter practiced the Wicca religion, and shot themselves because they believed they would spend the afterlife together. Lykke, a hypnotherapist, said she is a Christian.”

At this point we know almost nothing about the two, what their beliefs actually were, or what exactly happened that led to their deaths. There is certainly no teaching within Wicca advocating, or even mentioning, the benefits of suicide. The investigation into what happened is ongoing. However, none of that stopped the Canadian-based National Post from highlighting a truly offensive and grotesquely distorted anti-Pagan and anti-New Age screed published by MercatorNet that uses these deaths as a bludgeon to paint these belief systems in a negative light.

“The recent case of an apparent double suicide in Washington state by an English man and his 14-year-old stepdaughter is a stark reminder of the risks involved in neo-pagan worship and certain New Age practices. The pair were involved in a romantic relationship and both were Wiccans. Their Christian wife and mother, the real victim of this horrifying incident, believes they took their lives in the hope of spending eternity together. Wicca is a revival of pagan beliefs and rituals which emerge in the 1950s and 60s. It does not endorse murder, suicide or underage sex, though it does list ritual sex as a “magickal practice”. It could be argued, not without reason, that the ill-fated pair were mentally ill. But it would be wrong to conclude that their practice of Wicca was merely incidental to their actions.”

This offensive attack was written by Sue Alexander-Barnes, a Catholic convert who admits to spending a “couple years” exploring “Eastern and New Age religions.” Like many converts, she has a zeal that seemingly blinds her to the massive planks and logs within her own faith tradition. Hilariously, MercatorNet claims to be above the political fray, that they “respond with logic and evidence” and “do our best to be civil and courteous.” Yet, these ideals don’t seem to stop them from publishing an article that positively quotes a Christian scholar who calls the New Age movement a “spiritual version of AIDS,” ironically grabbing the quote from an article that debunks its fear-mongering.

I could stoop to their level and talk about the massive problems the Catholic church has with sexual abuse, despite its (allegedly) theoretically superior ethical framework. But instead let me point out why I feel Sue Alexander-Barnes has done us an injustice.

  1. She provides no evidence that Wicca condones, encourages, or  accepts murder, suicide, or underage sex. In fact, she even admits this point in the article.
  2. She provides no evidence that the fact of some Wiccans consensually engaging in “ritual sex” in any way promotes illegal or harmful acts. She simply says it “could be argued,” but anything “could be argued,” I could argue that the author’s lifestyle will lead to horrible things but I wouldn’t be right simply because I’m capable of arguing it.
  3. She wrongly conflates New Age and New Thought belief systems with modern Paganism. This is a common rookie mistake (perhaps she should read some academic material that doesn’t come from the Vatican). There may be overlap on certain topics, and some Pagans may exist within both cultures, but they are very different and very separate movements. The fact that she veers so quickly from Wicca to The Secret undermines any real argument she may have had against the religion. It would be like me criticizing Catholicism by invoking the New Apostolic Reformation.
  4. By wrongly conflating the New Age movement with modern Pagan religions she makes sweeping statements that have no foundation in fact. To apply the claim that Pagans have “little time for reason, science or technology,” for instance, shows a massive misunderstanding of our faiths, which largely embrace modern technology and scientific advances.
  5. She cites no credible evidence for any of her claims against us. The only Wiccan document she cites is the 1974 American Council of Witches’ “Principles of Wiccan Belief” to supposedly bolster her assertion that we “encourage the cult of the self” (which then leads to murder-suicides). Yet that very document consistently undermines the idea of a “cult of self.”

In short, it’s a hit-piece, and a sloppy one at that. If that’s the route MercatorNet wants to go down, fine, but it’s sad that a supposedly mainstream journalistic outlet like the National Post would promote it at their religion blog. Using a tragedy in this manner undermines the credibility of both outlets, ensuring that we should not put any weight into their views regarding modern Paganism, or indeed any topic dealing with non-mainstream permutations of faith or belief.

Pagan Community Notes is a companion to my usual Pagan News of Note, a series more focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. I want to reinforce the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So lets get started!

On Faith Adds Another Pagan Voice: I’m pleased to announce that The Washington Post’s On Faith site has added me to their panel of religious specialists and generalists. My first response, on the issue of religion within debates over homosexuality, is up now.

“It’s no secret that religion shapes our lives, our morality, our politics, and our society, so it should surprise no one that religion also shapes our reactions to homosexuality. How could it be denied? When we talk about the “traditional family” or “traditional marriage” we are, at the end of the day, talking about specific religious ideas about those topics. Indeed, when we talk about opposition to same-sex marriage, or ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, or the culture of bullying that has sparked so many high-profile suicides, the arguments come down to the perceived moral “correctness” of same-sex love and attraction.”

I join fellow Pagan panelist Starhawk, doubling the Pagan presence at that site.  I look forward to weighing in at On Faith, and being able to share a Pagan perspective with the readers there. I’ll try to be mindful of the voice and reach this gives me, and do my best to represent our diverse views while also sharing my personal opinions. I hope you’ll follow my posts there, and show WaPo that there’s an engaged modern Paganism that wants to see its voice(s) heard.

PCP Launches Pagan People: The popular Pagan podcast PCP (Pagan Centered Podcast) has launched a new series entitled “Pagan People” that aims to become the “CSPAN of Paganism”.

“Pagan Centered Podcast has launched its forth podcast series: Pagan People.  Pagan People is a podcast to document and broadcast the history of contemporary Paganism as it happens.  No commentary beyond what is necessary to understand the clip, it’s intended to be the CSPAN of Paganism.  Who knows, it may become an unbiased CNN of sorts for breaking Pagan news that has audio content.”

Their first installment is the oral arguments from Patrick McCollum’s 9th Circuit Court of Appeals appearance. PCP: Pagan People, as a member of the Pagan Newswire Collective’s partner organization Proud Pagan Podcasters, hopes to be medium “for ensuring the awesome audio content recorded by the PNC is properly attributed to the PNC and distributed to a wide audience.” You can subscribe to Pagan People via iTunes, or reach them at PaganPeople.info.

Prison System Turns to Pagan Chaplain: The newly-launched Patrick McCollum Foundation (Facebook) reports that the Washington Department of Corrections has turned to Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum for feedback on Pagan practices.

“The Washington department of Corrections contacted Patrick for clarification of what the normal religious practices are for Wiccans and Pagans. After talking with Patrick they will be expanding accommodations for the inmates and the ability to practice their religion!”

The Washington Department of Corrections made headlines back in 2008 for altering its policy regarding a prisoner’s adherence to multiple faiths. That move caused some controversy, but was ultimately seen as a positive step for the lives of prisoners. The prison system in Washington actually has a large Pagan population, so it’s nice to see them reaching out and trying to meet the needs of Pagan prisoners.

More Pagan Surveys: Chas Clifton reminds me that Aline O’Brien (aka Macha NightMare), president of the Cherry Hill Seminary board of directors, has released a new survey “exploring the concept of eldership in contemporary Paganism.”

“I have prepared a brief 10-question informal survey for a paper I’m writing exploring the concept of eldership in contemporary Paganism. I invite you to help in my research by participating in the survey. Use of the word “elder” in this survey means elder in the sense of a formal role within a group, organization or religious community. Feel free to circulate this request to your communities. Responses will be collected until January 15, 2011. Thanks to all who help by responding.”

This survey joins the political surveys by Maelstrom from The Political Pagan, and the Pagan Health Survey conducted by Kimberly Hedrick of the TriWinds Institute. Here’s hoping all this data collection ultimately benefits our community! Also, while I’m on the subject of surveys and data collection, let’s not forget that the American Academy of Religion conference starts October 30th in Atlanta, Georgia. A whole host of Pagan Studies folks will be there, and I’m hoping to bring you some coverage and reflections from that event.

Capture the Flag? In a final note, COG First Officer-elect Peter Dybing, writing as a private citizen, and not as a representative of COG, wonders if Pagan organizations are too invested in playing “capture the flag” in our quest for Pagan rights.

“So here is the question; are we as a community even half as effectively organized to gain or defend rights for Pagans? It is tempting to provide a long list of organizations and individuals doing great work for Pagan rights in response to this question. Each of these deserves our respect for all they have accomplished. Instead, lets address if this plethora of activities is keeping us from acting with unanimity? Is our approach analogous to a group of organizations playing Capture the Flag, where there are wins, but only by small groups and not the community as a whole? Does our duplication of effort squander resources and reflect that Paganism still needs to mature into an effective movement?”

Dybing calls for “a discussion on how to unify our approach to Pagan rights.” Is this a preview of what’s to come when his term starts as First Officer of the Covenant of the Goddess? Will we see more coordination, or at least more discussion about coordination, when it comes to Pagan organizations working towards the same goal? I invite you to weigh in on this subject. What would better coordination look like? How would it be managed without compromising the autonomy of each group?

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

I have a few quick story updates to share with you today.

Polyamory Court Case in Canada: As I mentioned last week, a major case involving the rights of polyamorous families in Canada is headed for the B.C. Supreme Court. In the comments of my entry, John Bashinski of the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association offered some clarification as to what exactly is being fought for in this instance.

“You’re right that this will raise polyamory’s profile in general, and that it may bring out the Pagan connection. However, this case isn’t going to result in a “semblance of legal recognition” for poly families… unless not being thrown in jail counts as recognition. What’s being challenged is an 1890 stature providing for five years in prison for being in “any kind of conjugal union” with more than one person (and, significantly for Pagans, for even attending a ceremony celebrating such a union). If we win, the result of this case will be more like what GLB(*) people got in 1969 than like what they got in 2005.”

So to be clear, this is about decriminalization, not legalization, I apologize for misconstruing the nature of case in my original post. However, many of my initial points about a potential culture-war blow-up and modern Paganism’s role within modern polyamory remain pertinent.  This is, and will be, a Pagan issue. Among the affidavits filed in this case was one by Surrey-based Wiccan priest Sam Wagar, who argued for the religious right to practice legal polygamy. In addition, The Congregationalist Wiccan Association of British Columbia (CWABC) has issued a statement in support of performing multiple-marriage ceremonies, while trying to stay within the bounds of Canadian law.

“…any form of love or sexuality that is non-abusive, and non-coercive, between consenting adults, is acceptable and even desirable. This includes, but is not limited to, relationships that are heterosexual or homosexual, relationships that are monogamous or polyamorous, and relationships that are alternative or conventional … the law currently forbids legally recognized clergy from presiding over any ceremony that bears any sort of resemblance to a wedding between more than two partners. For this reason, and only this reason, our religious representatives, as recognized by the Province of British Columbia, cannot perform polyamorous handfastings, or even handfastings between two people when one of the parties involved is still legally married to someone else. If we are approached to perform such a ceremony, we will refer the interested parties to clergy within our Church, or to qualified individuals within the Pagan community, who do not have legal marrying credentials from the Province of British Columbia.”

I’ll be watching this case as it develops. Whether the debate, or the issue, will spill over into US politics remains to be seen. Some are wondering if the next big push by activists after winning gay marriage won’t be polygamy, but prostitution. In any event, this issue is leaving the fringes, and we’ll need to be ready to address it.

The Eric Christensen Murder Trial and Conviction: Ten days ago Everett, Washington resident Eric Christensen was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his former girlfriend Sherry Harlan. Both Christensen and Harlan were involved in the local Pagan community, and the prosecution made a religious “blood oath” between the two a central element of their argument for premeditation. Christensen’s sentencing will be this Friday, and since his conviction, there’s been quite a bit of commentary on the Internet. Notably, someone claiming to be a juror in the trial made a comment on this blog concerning the argument for premeditation.

“I was a juror on the Christensen case and I can tell you that there was not a shred of evidence or testimony supporting the argument of premeditation. None. Only Mr. Matheson’s and Mr. Bridges’ conjecture.”

The defense was arguing for second-degree murder, saying there was no proof Christensen planned to kill Harlan before the act. It seems likely that some sort of appeal will be filed, though there is no doubt that Christensen is indeed guilty of murder and should be punished for it. Understandably, Harlan’s mother is calling for the death penalty, though that’s not on the table because it wasn’t tried as an aggravated murder. Since the conviction, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Craig Matheson emphasized that this murder was not a“Wiccan killing”. What the long-term reverberations of this case will be for Pagans in Washington remains to be seen.

The War on Some Herbs: Way back in April I reported on Louisiana House Bill 173, which would ban the sale, use, and possession of herbal “synthetic marijuana” blends that are legally sold in head-shops in several states. I noted that the bill would go much further than simply banning chemically treated “spice” herb blends, as it prohibits a whole host of herbs from being blended and smoked.

“HB173 would prohibit a number of plants from being blended and smoked or inhaled. The plants in question include mugwort, honeyweed, sacred lotus and dwarf skullcap.  Many of these plants are listed as ingredients in herbal incense products.”

Now word has come that the bill has passed both the Louisiana House and Senate and is headed to governor Bobby Jindal’s desk where it will no doubt be signed (alternate link).

“House Bill 173 was approve unanimously. State senators voted 32-0 to approve the bill, which bans the production, use, manufacture or possession of the synthetic substance, and provides penalties similar to those for marijuana. Louisiana is one of just a number of states that have passed bans as of late. Earlier this year, Georgia, Texas and Missouri have passed bans. While a number of states will likely consider legalizing marijuana, support for K2, thus far, has been little to none. Most states have passed bans with little or no opposition as it has proved to be a relatively safe political bet in an election year.”

This is bad news, and could have legal effects on those who grow and sell various herbs. One wonders where the natural health community is on this issue, or if they are laying low because it’s targeting head shops instead of Whole Foods. If we allow local governments to slowly ban more and more herb and herb-blends because it might get some kids high, we may find our gardens outlawed and our tinctures confiscated.

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

Washington resident Eric Christensen has been convicted of first-degree murder in the death of former girlfriend Sherry Harlan. Both Christensen and Harlan were involved in the local Everett, Washington Pagan community, and prosecution argued that a “Wiccan” blood-oath between the two pointed towards premeditation,  which necessitated  a first-degree, rather than second-degree, murder conviction.


Eric Christensen

“A man accused of killing his girlfriend and dismembering her body after she broke what he called a “blood oath” was found guilty this afternoon of first-degree murder. Eric Christensen, 40, cackled as he was led out of the courtroom in shackles. He continued to laugh as jail guards began transporting him back to jail. Christensen faces more than 45 years in prison for the death of Sherry Harlan. Jurors deliberated for about three hours after a two-week trial that included graphic photographs and grisly details. Superior Court Judge Thomas Wynne told attorneys that he planned to tell jurors that counseling will be available if they feel that they have been traumatized by what they saw and heard in court. As lawyers gave their closing arguments today it was clear that only the degree of Christensen’s guilt was in question.”

Sentencing for Christensen will happen on June 18th, where he could face more than 45 years in prison.

While I’m certainly glad this monster is going to jail for a long, long, time, I’m concerned with the way the prosecution argued for premeditation. By making the oath, and Christensen’s religious beliefs, a framework for premeditation in this case, you potentially open a Pandora’s box of legal questions. Questions that could jeopardize the initial conviction on appeal, and paint modern Paganism as spur for Christensen’s behavior. One local media outlet has already intimated that prosecutors believe modern Witchcraft “drove” Christensen towards the murder, while another calls it “witchcraft-fueled”. Further, from looking at the coverage of the case, there is no indication that any input or testimony from experts or clergy within modern Paganism were used by either side to explore whether Christensen’s beliefs were consistent with modern religious Witchcraft.

Let’s hope Sherry Harlan’s spirit will be at peace now that some semblance of justice has been served, that her family can find some closure, and that Christensen’s barbaric, brutal, and inhuman act will not come to haunt the Pagans in Everett dealing with the aftermath of this tragedy in their community.

UPDATE: Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Craig Matheson says that this murder was not a “Wiccan killing”.

“Matheson emphasized that Christensen’s actions were not in keeping with the Wiccan faith. He surmised that those who belong to the Index church where Christensen attended services were just as horrified by what Christensen did as jurors were. “This is not a Wiccan killing,” Matheson said.”

Will the media and public listen?