Archives For Wicca

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

News Update…

Charles Jaynes

Charles Jaynes

Convicted killer Charles Jaynes, who has been serving a life-sentence for the murder and molestation of a ten-year-old boy, lost his three-year-battle to change his name. As reported in 2012, Jaynes petitioned to adopt a new name to coincide with his conversion to Wicca. The new name, Manasseh Invictus Auric Thutmose V, was reportedly was given to him by “God.”

As noted in the Dec 2015 appeals decision, Jaynes originally testified that his new name was required for his “Wiccan religious tenets” and that his “old heathen name is religiously offensive. It is also spiritually debilitating due to the fact that God and Jesus Christ had given me a new name.”

The Appeals Court upheld the original decision to disallow the name change, saying that it was not found to be required for the Wiccan religion nor was it in the best interest of the public. The ruling states, “We affirmed the probate judge’s denial of the petition, as ‘granting the petitioner a name change would likely cause significant confusion in the criminal justice system if he were ever released . . . [and] would not be in the public interest if the petitioner were able later to elude criminal prosecution and conceal his identity.’

Jaynes was up for parole in early 2015, but he declined the option. No new date for a parole hearing has been set.

More links:

  • A recent Gallup poll on religion confirmed the statistics gathered earlier in the year by Pew Forum. Americans are slowly becoming less religious. According to the Gallup Poll, 75.2 percent of Americans identify as Christian; 5.1% as other religions; 19.6 as nones. By these stats, the Christian population is down 5 percentage points, while the nones are up by the same number. The “other religion” category lost .2 percentage points. But with the margin of error be +/- 1 percent, the population of non-Christians appears to have stayed constant. Unfortunately, this constancy cannot be explored further. The Gallup poll does not break down the “other” category, and therefore it is impossible to analyze anything specific about the population increase or decrease in any one of the minority religious practices.
  • Capitalizing on Pew Forum stats, Inverse published an article titled, “Paganism grows on Campus.” Writer Sarah Slot concludes that, even though America is becoming less religious, Paganism is on the rise. She writes, “An all-you-can-eat buffet of naturalistic practice, polytheism, social awareness, and environmentalism, modern Paganism is both the outgrowth of Europe’s neolithic neuroses and a belief system well-suited to a generation grappling with the idea of privilege and rejecting the bromides offered by powerful institutions.” The article goes on to explore the growth and expansive nature of the religion both on campus and off, through a number of interviews.
  • According to The New York Blog, women wrote the majority of top books checked out from New York City Public libraries. The NYPL system annually publishes its top ten most requested books in December. Lists are compiled system wide, per borough and per branch. Interestingly, the Eastchester Branch, located in the Bronx, had a Llewellyn book in the top slot. The locals in that area were reportedly most interested in Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Names for Pagans, Wiccans, Witches, Druids, Heathens, Mages, Shamans & Independent Thinkers of all Sorts Who are Curious About Names from Every Place and Every Time by K.M. Sheard.
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Isis as represented in Goddesses Alive! 2015 [Phote Credit: Greg Harder]

  • Speaking of names, this December saw a new surge in confusion between the Goddess Isis and the terrorist group Daesh. As reported, this confusion has led to some violence and vandalism. On Dec. 25, the news site Broadly decided to set the record straight in an article titled “The Women who worship Isis for Christmas.”  Writer Sirin Kale begins by saying, “No, not that ISIS.” She goes on to discuss the modern veneration of the Goddess Isis through interviews with several people, including Rowan Morgana, Holli Emore, Lady Nephthys, and Mani Novalight. Within the article, Kale shared a video showing a blessing, and several photos, including one from the Goddesses Alive! performance at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.
  • Moving outside the United States, the BBC reported that the historic Boleskine House on Loch Ness had been partially destroyed by fire on Dec 23.The house was originally built in the 1760s and was the home of Aleister Crowley from 1899-1913. Due to his occupancy, the house earned somewhat of a notorious reputation. According to legends and stories, Crowley never completed some of his magical work within the space, leaving “demons” about. In the 1970s, Jimmy Page bought the house due to his interest in Crowley’s work. He then sold it in 1992, and the house has since passed through several hands. According to the reports, it was unoccupied when the fire broke out.
  • In Japan, temple administrators are hoping tourism will save their sacred spaces. According to the Religion News Service, Japanese attendance at these temples is in decline, which is “crimping revenue.”  In order to pay for upkeep and support the monks in their studies, some temples are now looking to the booming tourism industry to help cover their costs. With new hotels and bullet trains nearby, administrators hope to capture some of the tourist money by providing a uniquely Japanese experience to would-be visitors.
  • In November, while many were focused on Mar’s book Witches in America, some might have missed another new “Witch” book. Released in late October by publisher Little, Brown and Company, The Witches: Salem 1692 is an historical account of the Salem Witch trials. The new book has gotten rave reviews across mainstream media on both historical accuracy and the depiction of events, including one reviewer who remarked that the writing is “light on sensationalism.” That is often a rarity for Salem stories. The Witches was written by author Stacy Schiff, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the book Cleopatra: A Life.
  • Now for something a little different, here is some folk music from Mali. It is categorized as Folk Wassoulou, and is performed by the talented Fatoumata Diawara.

 

Missing Texas Man Found Dead

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Texas — On Nov 14, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s office discovered a burned GMC Sonoma in a wooded area near Firetower Road. The partial plates revealed that the truck belonged to 28 year old Marc Pourner, who had been reported missing since Nov. 12. During a search of the area, Pourner’s body was eventually discovered only a short distance away from the vehicle.

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[Online Profile Photo]

Pourner, also known as Axel in Wiccan circles, was a resident of Spring, Texas. He was a very active member in several online Wiccan groups and had helped administer the popular Facebook group The Cauldron – A Mixing Place for Witches, Druids and Pagans. He was very open and proud about his religious beliefs, and about being gay. Pourner did not hide who he was and what he believed.

On Wed, the Montgomery Sheriff’s office told The Wild Hunt that they had not yet determined a motive and could not comment on possible suspects. However, since that conversation, the department did issue a warrant for the arrest of David James Brown, a reported acquaintance and Facebook friend of Pourner.

The accused was eventually found in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, where his girlfriend lives, and was booked at 10:30 pm Wed. night. The arrest warrant charges Brown with capital murder. Brown is currently being held without bond and waiting extradition to Montgomery County, Texas.

For Pourner’s family and friends, the news has been overwhelming. A Prayer Vigil was held Wed, Nov 18 at Caney Creek Apostolic Tabernacle on FM 1485, Montgomery County, Texas.  And, there is also a GoFundMe campaign to help his father pay for some funeral expenses.

We will bring you the full story on Pourner’s life and all updates on Sunday.

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Isis Bookstore Vandalized

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Over the past weekend, Isis Books and Gifts was vandalized for the fourth time in the past year. In this recent incident, a brick was thrown through the lower portion of the sign.

[Facebook Photo / Isis Books & Gifts]

[Facebook Photo / Isis Books & Gifts]

The book store owner, Karen Charboneau-Harrison, doesn’t know who did this. However, the reason itself is not a mystery. The vandalism happened one day after the Beirut and Paris terrorist attacks. She told a local reporter for CNN, “I don’t know if somebody walking down the street just saw our name on the sign and kind of lost it for a moment and threw a rock through it … or if it was an ignorant person who actually thought this was a bookstore for terrorists, I don’t know.”

Although confusion between the store’s name and the terrorist group is causing problems, Charboneau-Harrison has no intention of changing the name. On Facebook, Isis Books posted, “The name Isis is that of the Egyptian Goddess of women, marriage, magick, healing and more. However, with our media and politicians constantly using the word to name those in the Middle East who are the source of such horror, some people seem to get confused. Please help us to educate the media and your family and friends to call the terrorists by a more correct name – Daesh – not Islamic State, not ISIS, not ISIL.”

We will have the full story next week, including more on the ongoing controversy over the terrorist group’s name.

NEDERLAND, Col. – Nestled in the Rocky Mountains and resting at an elevation of 8,230 feet lies the small town of Nederland, Colorado. It was founded in 1874 by settlers who were attracted to the lowland valleys as a outpost for their trapping work. Eventually mining became the town’s sustaining business and, when that disappeared, tourism and farming took its place. But since the 1960s, the town has slowly attracted new types of residents, including artists, musicians, and those specifically interested in the great outdoors. Being only 17 miles southwest of Boulder, the town has thrived, while still retaining its unique small town feel.

[Courtesy H. Wendlhandt]

Rev. H. Wendlandt [Courtesy Photo]

Within this little town, there is a congregation called the Nederland Community Presbyterian Church (NCPC) led by Reverand Hansen Wendlandt. The congregation, like the town, has a long history beginning the with mining boom. The church building itself was erected in 1912 and is still being used today. Rev. Wendlandt, originally from Arkansas, describes how his religious beliefs are unmistakably merged with his love of the outdoors and the mountains of Colorado. In a bio, he writes, “Mountains have always made me feel small, but grand in the responsibility God gives us to steward all this creation. Whether it is through nature, or music, or arts, or gardening, or however you feel the Spirit alive …”

Rev. Wendlandt has served the NCPC community for only 2 and half years, but he is making quite an impact. Included in his personal devotion to service is a passion to help the community, both his congregation and the entire town of Nederland. With that in mind, he recently initiated a new program hosted by NCPC. He announced his concept in an article published in the Mountain-Ear, a local newspaper, Titled “Religiously Literate Citizens,” the article discusses the importance of religious literacy in an increasingly diverse world. He writes:

Religious illiteracy hurts our communities by creating distance; it hurts our political system when ignorance breeds fear; it hurts individuals who could otherwise explore on their own any spiritual ideas and practices for well-being. And to make matters worse, all of this has been magnified with each successive generation over the last century or so.

In that article, Rev. Wendlandt goes on to discuss the need to expose children to the religious beliefs of their neighbors, saying, “I believe it is time to do more for our young people, so that they can do more for our world.” He notes that there is remarkable religious diversity just in the small town of Nederland and added that, as children make their way into the bigger world, they will face even more difference. “We can help prepare them,” he writes.

Nederland Community Presbyterian Church

Nederland Community Presbyterian Church. [Courtesy Photo]

In an interview with The Wild Hunt, Rev. Wendlandt further explained that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for kids to learn about different religions – to become religiously literate. He said that he himself comes from a background of pluralism, and sees this type of education as essential for life.

So Rev. Wendlandt set out to create his own religious literacy program with lessons to be held each month. The program is aimed primarily at teens and pre-teens, and is open to anyone in the surrounding communities, not just his congregation. One Sunday each month, a period of time is set aside to teach and learn about a different belief system. Rev. Wendlandt wrote:

The plan is to have food associated with each religion, make the learning interactive and fun, look at sacred objects and texts, and have plenty of room for questions and conversation. There will be no persuasion or argument, just a chance for young people to grow.

For the first session, held Oct. 18, the Community Church welcomed Naveen, a follower of Hinduism. He brought food to share from Kathmandu, a local Nepalese restaurant. Rev. Wendlandt explained that he chose to begin with this particular religion due to the October festival of Navarati. He believes that the lessons are all the more richer if they coincide with a specific holiday.

For the second installment, held Nov. 1, the Church welcomed Kim Culver and Kimba Stefane, two local Pagans, to talk about Wiccan traditions. As with the Oct session, Wicca was chosen for this date so that the lesson coincided with the festival of Samhain.

Kim Culver and Kimba Stefane are part of a Nederland-based Wiccan group called The Five Weird Sisters. Culver is a local chef and herbalist. She has been practicing Wicca since 1976, when she lived in the Bay Area of California. She remembers the early days when Covenant of the Goddess was still forming. Stefane is the owner of the Blue Owl Bookstore, which sells a mix of items from books, jewelry, local art and music and some metaphysical supplies. It also serves as the local ice cream parlor. Both women are well-known in Nederland.

Joining Culver and Stefane in the Five Weird Sisters are Janette Taylor, Nancy Moon and Gail Eddy, all locals. In an interview, Culver explained that they each were practicing solitaries.Then, five years ago, the women began to meet for social outings and discussions, which eventually led to the formation of a group practice. In the past, the Five Weird Sisters have sponsored a public, annual Witch’s Ball, hosted open rituals and even orchestrated an spiral dance.Their next ball will be in October 2016.

Five Weird Sisters

Five Weird Sisters: (left to right) Janette Taylor, Kim Culver, Nancy Moon, Gail Eddy, and Kimba Stefane. [Courtesy Photo]

Rev. Wendlandt knew both Culver and Stepfane, and contacted them about participating in his religious literacy program. The two women agreed. Culver said that they saw this as a fun community opportunity and a great way of fulfilling the “service aspect of Wicca.”

The Nov. 1 session was held at 11 a.m. at NCPC. The women set up a table containing a number of religious items, which are typically used in Wicca. Culver said, “We touched on history, tools, magic, and beliefs..nothing too in-depth.” The lesson also included some traditional harvest foods and a hands-on project. The group made Fire Cider.

Since the program is directed at children, there were very few adults in the room. Culver said that Rev. Wendlandt wanted “to create a safe space for the children to learn” without adult interruption. And, he agreed saying that children are “less likely to ask questions” when adults are in the room. He wanted them to have the comfort of freedom to engage.

Culver described the participating children as being both surprised and fascinated. Laughing, she recalled that their first surprise came when she and Stefane arrived not wearing pointed hats and long robes. The children didn’t expect the visiting witches to be dressed in “normal” clothing. Rev. Wendlandt also noted how intrigued and enthusiastic the children were. He said that one nine-year old boy asked, “When did you know you were a witch?”

Of all of the presented topics, Culver believes that the history lesson provoked the most curiosity. This was particularly true when the women touched on the oppression of folk healers, in general, as well as the practitioners of old religions by the Roman Catholic Church. After it was over, Culver said that an adult women, who happened to be a Deacon at the local Catholic Church, approached her saying that she was shocked and had no idea about witchcraft persecutions. She said, “I’m so sorry. Please don’t hold that against us.”

Additionally, Culver noticed that “the young girls and even the women” were particularly surprised by the presence and even dominance of a Priestess. Culver said, “They were surprised that they could be in charge.” Rev. Wenderlandt used this moment to open a dialog about a woman’s role in other faith traditions. He asked the children, “Why do you think some religions don’t treat women this way?” He noted that a similar discussion had come up during the Hindu presentation, saying that these sessions are creating opportunities for extended discussions, and it’s the kids asking the questions.

Table with Wiccan religious items at the NCPC Church religious literacy lesson [Courtesy K. Culver]

The entire Wiccan lesson lasted for about an hour and a half. Culver said that the event was beneficial to the community, but also to herself and Stefane. She said, “The event reaffirmed my personal beliefs and made me think about who I am and who I project out into the community … It also made me realize that there are people out there who want to know, even if they don’t want to follow.”

She added that being in that church to share her religious beliefs with people, who she had thought would be closed-minded, “opened her heart.” Culver said that, after class, she and Stefane immediately went into the forest for an impromptu ritual, during which they “dug into their roots.” .

When asked if they have received any backlash or complaints, Culver said, “nothing really.” Rev. Wendlandt said the same. He has received nothing but support. In fact, next month, a local alternative high school will be sending its World Cultures Class to the Sunday session. And, he has even been asked to run a similar program for adults, to which he currently answers maybe.

Going forward, Rev. Wendlandt has scheduled a Jewish speaker for December in conjunction with Chanukah, and a Buddhist speaker for January. Beyond that, he is working on scheduling the rest of the year through May. He said that there are already plans to feature Islam, Humanism, possibly Catholicism and Mormonism, Eastern traditions and various Native American religions. Rev. Wendlandt added that he prefers to welcome local residents as speakers, which has its limits. Why locals? He said, “I want the kids to see their neighbors as diverse, not just the religions.” He wants the children to see these practices and people as normal, real and in their lives; rather than just concepts floating in space.

As for Culver and Stefane, they have decided to continue this outreach work. After witnessing the need for and interest in Rev. Wendlandt’s program, the two are now planning an independent interfaith potluck women’s group, during which people can share their religious beliefs. Culver also said that they might be doing another session at NCPC around Imbolc. She added, “This is a really good thing. There is a quest for this kind knowledge.”

Rev. Wendlandt said that his “religious literacy” program is really not very unique and that many small churches across the U.S. are doing the same thing. And, while it may not be well publicized, the trend is growing and this delights him. As he expressed in both the article and in conversation, “We’re in this life thing together. I hope these events can help our young people be a little more ready to make their lives and their world a bit more connected, peaceful and meaningful.”

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PENSACOLA, Fla – It was announced Tuesday that the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office (ECSO) had made progress in the July triple homicide dubbed the ‘Blue Moon’ murders. Donald Wayne Hartung Sr, age 58, was arrested the morning of Oct 27 for the murder of his mother Voncile ‘Bonnie’ Smith (age 76) and his two half brothers Richard Thomas Smith (age 49) and John William Smith (age 47). Hartung is being held in the Escambia County jail without bond.

pensacolaThe case, as originally reported, was labeled the ‘Blue Moon’ murders after Sheriff David Morgan linked the case to that week’s blue moon. He called the murder “ritualistic” and the scene “odd at best.” Additionally, during the Aug. 4 news conference, Morgan reported that the case was connected to Witchcraft, which set off a week-long international media frenzy.

Over the past three months, there has been no public updates on the investigation. Then, on Tuesday, ECSO announced Hartung’s arrest and, subsequently, held a press conference. According to the Sheriff Morgan, the crime scene was confusing with “significant forensic evidence.” This was corroborated by State Attorney Bill Eddins, who said that it was one of the “most complicated he’d seen in his career.” They both cited this factor as the reason for the delays in making an arrest and updating the public.

When asked more specifically about the motive, Sheriff Morgan said, “I don’t concern myself as much with motive, you know because again … from my area of this in law enforcement we don’t really care so much as to why they did it, as the fact that it did occur.”

Then, he was asked specifically about the ‘witchcraft’ motive, to which he said, “Yes, it is still in play.”  Although in this press conference, he himself did not use the term ‘witchcraft’ or any related words. Sheriff Morgan did, however, clearly note that there was evidence in the home that Hartung practiced Witchcraft, and that the suspect made statements supporting that evidence. ECSO would not release any more information, saying that the details will come out in court.

Later that same day, Sheriff Morgan gave an exclusive interview to the local ABC affiliate. In that video, Sheriff Morgan did use the word ‘witchcraft,’ saying “it is still an element of the case.” He elaborated, saying that investigators found “photos, items, physical evidence” suggesting the practice of Witchcraft. Those details along with the July 31 blue moon and the reported “self-admissions” are keeping the Witchcraft theory in play. This interview can be seen in full below.

Despite the arrest and news update, the alleged ‘Witchcraft’ connection still remains mystery to the public. As noted by Sheriff Morgan, there were two other possible theories being pursued as well. One involved R.T. Williams’ connection to the Department of Homeland Security, but that has since been dropped. The third is monetary, or “financial gains.”

Additionally, it is now being reported that the crime scene, originally called ‘ritualistic,’ was not at all staged suspiciously. According News 5, “investigators are now [saying] that the bodies were not found laid out in a ritual pattern. All three bodies were discovered in separate rooms of the house.”

Despite the changing details and downplaying of the ‘Witchcraft’ angle, the media is still working the ‘Occult’ angle, which may be partially due to the upcoming holiday. News reports are now calling the case “the Witchcraft murders.”

Regardless of motivation, it is entirely possible that the suspect did dabble in the Craft in some form. Books and online information are easily accessible to anyone. In fact, local News 5 is now reporting that the victims’ family members state that “Hartung ‘loosely’ practiced some form of witchcraft or Wiccan religion, and kept at least one Wiccan book in his office.” This may be what ECSO found.

We reached out to local Wiccan Priest Rev. Edward Livingston, who said, “[Hartung] is not part of the Pagan community to anyone’s knowledge…. I’ve never heard of him.” Livingston is the founder of the Fire Dance Church of Wicca, the only 501(c)3, Wiccan church in the area. He has lived there for 50 years and been active in the Pagan community for over 20.

Livingston described the Pensacola religious climate as very conservative. He said that it is dominated by the Southern Baptist, Assembly of God, and Pentecostal Churches. He added that there are two Jewish synagogues, a few Catholic churches, one Unity Church and one UU congregation. Due to this atmosphere, most Pagans remain “in the broom closet” and practice in small covens or alone. Livingston said, “We all know solitary practitioners that have never had any training. If it turns out to be this [is] the case maybe its once again a good reason for proper education within our community.”

1917403_177645989062_5187128_nWhen asked if there had been any backlash due to the very public ‘Witchcraft’ accusations, Livingston emphatically said “no.” As he explained, this is partly due to the solitary nature of most Pagans in the area. Additionally, he added  “[Most locals] saw this as our silly sheriff over speaking  He has a history for histrionics and over reaction.”

Livingston himself was outraged by the entire fiasco in August, both with ECSO and in the media. He also said that, to date, no one from ECSO has contacted him, or any other Pagan known to him, to assist with the case or clarify the details about Witchcraft or Wicca.

As announced Tuesday, the so-called ‘Blue Moon’ murder case has now been handed over the the State Attorney’s office, who will be seeking the death penalty due to the number of victims and the situation. Hartung is due in court for a Grand Jury hearing on Nov 18 at 8:30am.

Until the court case makes more details public, there are still questions remaining. Is there really any tangible connection to Witchcraft or Wicca? And, if so, is that Witchcraft connection truly the motivation behind the gruesome act? Or is it simply the religious practice of the suspect – an irrelevant, but very distracting, detail?

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FT. MEADE, Md. – A civilian dental technician alleges that she has suffered religious discrimination, a hostile work environment and was subsequently fired after filing a formal complaint. Deborah Schoenfeld said that her Evangelical coworkers and managers at Epes Dental Clinic called her a witch, discriminated against her religion, and called her practice of yoga and meditation ‘satanic.’

Deborah Meade [Courtesy Photo]

Deborah Meade [Courtesy Photo]

In a recent interview with The Wild Hunt, Schoenfeld described her faith as Hindu, but has also been studying Wicca for 2 years. She said that the harassment began in April 2015 and that both military and civilian coworkers and managers took part in the problem. Schoenfeld described this harassment as such:

  • Employees were expected to attend Evangelical religious events and were asked to pray that SCOTUS would rule against same sex marriage.

  • Predominately Christian music was played in the office during work hours.

  • Schoenfeld was told that, due to her practice of meditation, she was bringing demons into the office.

  • Her practice of yoga was called “satanic.”

  • She was called a “Hindu witch.”

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has sent a letter to US Air Force officials, notifying them that the MRFF is “immediately providing aggressive advocacy services for Ms. Schoenfeld as a MRFF client pursuant to her resolute quest to obtain a just resolution to her shocking complaints.” The MRFF also said it has filed a formal complaint with the military Equal Employment Opportunity (EO) channel.

As explained by Schoenfeld, she first reported these instances to her chain of command, but received no help. Then, on Sept 2, she filed a formal complaint regarding the harassment. Later that day she was fired for “using profanity against coworker.” Her manager declined to name the coworker or further define the situation on which they had based the firing.

Schoenfeld said that this harassment and the subsequent firing has been stressful. “I have been trying to still deal with the whole complexity of the situation as a whole. If it were not for my Pagan friends and for all the support from outsiders, I don’t think I could have kept myself going. Even my yoga teacher roots for me saying, ‘I’m glad you keep on coming to yoga, it will ground you.’ ”

She also added that the firing itself was a complete surprise. Schoenfeld explained that she had worked very hard and had been asked to perform two jobs at once. Even with the increased workload, she was praised for the quality of her performance,“I even got an award for patient safety back in March 2015. My non-abusive co-workers would give me accolades for helping them with their extra patients, so they would not have to work through lunch or stay after work. This has been my first military job, and the first time in all my career I have ever felt this type of discrimination.”

In an off-the-record interview with the Air Force Times, two of Schoenfeld’s former coworkers confirmed that the harassment against Schoenfeld took place and that they themselves were threatened with termination if they were to back her claims. Additionally noted in the article, those two same co-workers added that a deep suspicion of Hinduism was the motivation for the harassment.

According to USAF regulations, all persons in leadership positions “must ensure that their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed to be officially endorsing or disapproving of or extending preferential treatment for any faith, belief or absence of belief.” Violations can be charged as a felony under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

[Courtesy http://www.ftmeade.army.mil/]

[Courtesy http://www.ftmeade.army.mil/]

The Air Force District of Washington has received Weinstein’s letter and is looking into the allegations raised, said spokesman Maj. Joel Harper.

The Wild Hunt contacted Ft. Meade Public Affairs, but as of publication we have not received a response back.

After this experience, Schoenfeld said that she now has a different view of religious freedom in the US. “I believe it’s only free for certain of the religions. Polytheists are looked down upon by many faiths, although there are many of us. I do hope that one day the Christian church will realize some of us are really just happy just the way we are.”

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When reporting on witchcraft in India, journalists must invariably tell the tragic tale of accusations, persecution and extreme violence. However, there is another side to the practice of Witchcraft, more specifically Wicca, in the country. While most of the victims of witchcraft-related crimes are not actual practitioners, there are Witches and Wiccans thriving in India’s unique and rich culture.

The Wild Hunt spoke with Ipsita Roy Chakraverti, arguably India’s most well-known and public Witch. She answered questions about her own journey and about living in a society that struggles with real witchcraft violence. Aside from being a Wiccan priestess, Ipsita is an author and the founder of The Wiccan Brigade of India and The Young Bengal Brigade, based in Kolkata.

IMG_2768

Ipsita Roy Chakraverti [Courtesy Photo]

We first asked Ipsita how and where she discovered Witchcraft and Wicca. She said, “My journey into Wicca began many, many decades ago [in] a chalet in the Laurentians in Canada. My father Debabrata Chakraverti was in the diplomatic service, and was then posted as India’s Permanent Representative to the International Civil Aviation Organisation of the U.N.. My mother Roma came from the blue blood of India’s royal houses of Mayurbhunj and Coochbehar. We were living in Montreal … We were part of the elite and the official world. Also, very much the orthodox world.”

During that time, Ipsita met the “the enigmatic Carlotta,” a lawyer and “scholar of the esoteric and ancient traditions of the world.” Carlotta was involved in a private women’s study group of ancient religions. After a series of interviews, meetings, and discussions, Ipsita was allowed into this somewhat secret society.

Ipsita remembered, “The room in Carlotta’s house in Lachine would have the glow of lamps and velvet drapes drawn close. There, we would study and delve into ancient esoteric traditions of the world. We would research and discuss subjects as diverse as Taoism, the Jewish traditions, Egyptian magic, Celtic lore and much more. It was like stepping through a portal and into a monastery from another time, another place. It was there that I going was first introduced to the subject of [Witchcraft].”

Her parents were very supportive in Ipsita’s spiritual quest for knowledge. She studied at the chalet “hidden in the Laurentians.” For periods of time, she said, “We’d be living the monastic life. The chalet seemed to me to be set at a special power spot. It was surrounded by the elements, and by nature … I still recall vividly the room of a thousand crystals, which Carlotta had shown me. And I recall the beauty and depth of my own initiation there.”

Ipsita leading a group of Psychic Investigators [Courtesy Photo]

Ipsita leading a group of Psychic Investigators [Courtesy Photo]

When Ipsita returned to India as an adult in the 1960s, she was faced with a culture that had a very different relationship with Witchcraft. Despite the new setting, Ipsita continued her studies and her association with the women’s group. In an article published in 1977, Ipsita wrote, “Our society contains 75 female members. I have never met them all… I am in the only Indian woman in the coven. We choose to call ourselves ‘pagan priestesses’ and sometimes ‘witches.’ ”

Over the following years, she continued her practice and studies and eventually began using the word ‘Wicca.’ As time went by, her work became more public. She began writing and was often interviewed by India’s media. Through that work, Ipsita took up the crusade to empower India’s women. In a 1994, she told a Delhi Mid Day reporter, “I want to awaken the witch in every woman.”

By the 1990s, Ipsita was directly addressing India’s witchcraft-related violence problem and the reality of women being “branded ‘daayans’ or witches.” In an essay for the Hindustan Times, she wrote, “Wicca and Witchcraft are the key to liberation.” Her religious beliefs and practice were, and still are, interwoven with a dynamic feminist spirit.

Ipsita explained, “India is very patriarchal, even today. When they saw me, standing up for those they were trying to brand and destroy, and saw that I was helping these women by calling myself a ‘witch’, these lobbies erupted with fury. These were vested interests which could not tolerate me because I was saying that a woman who was an individual had her own rights.”

Because of Ipsita’s social status, these “lobbies” couldn’t touch her, which only caused more friction. She said, “In India, class and background still count.” Using her social privliege as leverage, Ipsita was able to “show up” the motives behind the witch hunts, whether caused by gender inequality, ageism, property ownership, vendettas or sexual advances. Ipsita added that she also wanted to demonstrate that “superstition is a very carefully cultivated industry” and there are many who “gain from it – money, property, ego, power.” She said, “I was unmasking them.”

While working on these varied socio-cultural problems, Ipsita was also teaching her Wiccan tradition and building her personal practice. We asked her specifically about that tradition and how Indian culture or the Hindu religion informs it. She first said, “I follow a tradition which encompasses the goddesses of all cultures, east and west. After all, the Wiccan tradition spans something which is beyond barriers of land and people.”

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

When asked specifically about the inclusion of the Hindu pantheon, one that is often incorporated or revered by Wiccan traditions in U.S., she said, “There is no formal bind on us regarding the Hindu pantheon. However, since we follow the goddess culture, we acknowledge the Indian goddesses Durga for strength, Kali for detachment and power and Saraswati for learning and the quest for knowledge. All these goddesses seem to have western counterparts, hence we look upon the goddess power as one, whose manifestations are many. In that was, our Wicca is more monotheistic.”

Ipsita approximates that there are around 5000 Wiccans across India, both men and women. Through her own groups, she teaches “the culture of the great goddesses of the world [and] the tools of Wicca.” She added, “Most of all, I teach them what was ingrained into me – the attitude. The way of life. Of how one deals with the ups and downs of life. It is something monastic and something beautiful. And yet one lives in the normal, everyday world, going about one’s business. One learns to make a success of that too. A strange contradiction perhaps … I believe it is in us to achieve the ‘super-mind’ as taught by great Indian mystics like Shri Aurobindo,– to be a super-breed among men and women.”

As a child back in Canada, she was introduced to Witchcraft not as a structural religious institution taught within a hierarchical organization, but more of a way and or a method. She said, “I come from a world … when the name and the word ‘Teacher’ was enough. When Wicca was taught and passed on from a handful of teachers to their students. It was partly an oral tradition, and partly through the study of old parchments and books. And a lot of it was experience – of the power in rocks and earth, or the sacred forces which can come alive, and much more. My teachers were not those who were looking to run a Pagan organizations. They wanted perhaps only that some of their knowledge should pass on to a few of the next generation. That the ancient ways should not die out with them.”

Ipsita explained that she is like that in many ways. However, facing the socio-cultural issues within India, she felt “forced” to create an organization. In 2006, she formed The Wiccan Brigade. However, Ipsita still refuses titles and only wants to be known as a teacher. She said, “We delve into the old ways and mystical learnings, old texts and writings from different cultures. It is a  path, where the teacher-student relationship is important, like the Indian “gurukul” system of old. The student learns from life and the ways of the teacher, and not just book learning. Ours is a blend of both the eastern and western systems – passing on the old knowledge.”

Over the years, Ipsita has written a number of articles, essays, and books, including Spirits I Have Known, Beloved Witch and Sacred Evil. She has appeared in several movies including a 2006 Bollywood film called Sacred Evil based on her book of the same title. In 2011, her story was featured in a telefilm called Mannequin. And, a third film, Loving Doll, is currently being produced, which is also based on her true-life stories.

Appearing with Ipsita in Mannequin is her daughter Deepta Roy Chakraverti. Like her mother, Deepta is also a Wiccan practitioner, and is publicly open about her practice. Deepta is the general secretary of the Wiccan Brigade and has studied both mathematics and law. This summer Deepta released her own book titled, Bhangarh to Bedlam: Haunted Encounters.

Ipsita with her daughter Deepta Roy Chakraverti

Ipsita with her daughter Deepta Roy Chakraverti

Ipsita said, “I have taught [Deepta] to learn from the world around her. As my own teacher had once told me, ‘life is the greatest school,’ so I have taught her. She studies the texts and subjects which are part of our Wiccan curriculum. She has an enquiring mind which enjoys delving into the why’s and wherefore’s of things, and to not take things at face value. I have taught her to align herself with the forces and elements around us, for they have much to teach. She lives with an attitude which is that of strength and independence.”

Ipsita’s journey is not yet over. Over the years, she has garnered support from the “highest echelons” of Indian society and politics in her “fight against the misuse of the term witch.” She said, “The goal is not yet reached because our women still suffer at the hands of a male dominated society and are tortured. My goal will be reached when I can show the perpetrators of crimes in the name of ‘witchcraft’ that every strong woman is a witch …”

Despite those struggles, Ipsita remains hopeful looking back on all of what she has already achieved. She said, “Today, I have the Wiccan Brigade which receives so many applications every day from men and women, of all ages, who want to be a part of the movement … But perhaps my greatest satisfaction all said and done comes from seeing how my detractors have fallen by the wayside. Today, I write books which become best sellers. Today, what I say counts.” Her voice is being heard.

LINCOLNTON, North Carolina — Prayer at public meetings is often a battleground with members of minority faiths seeking to have their viewpoints represented, while others argue that such religious ceremony doesn’t belong in a governmental setting. Since the Supreme Court’s 2014 Town of Greece v Galloway decision that allowed such prayers provided minority faiths are included, Pagans and others have sought to test those boundaries. For example, the pantheist David Suhor sang an invocation of the quarters at a county commission meeting in Florida.  More recently, when the issue of inclusiveness sprang up in the foothills region of North Carolina, it led to a new level of interfaith dialog in the form of the Foothills Interfaith Assembly.

Lincolnton Historic Main Street [Photo Credit: Roxyloveshistory / Wikimedia]

Lincolnton Historic Main Street [Photo Credit: Roxyloveshistory / Wikimedia]

The commissioners of Lincoln County in North Carolina open their meetings with a prayer, and it’s always been a Christian one. When another county in the state was forced by a federal judge to cease pre-meeting prayers altogether, a reporter asked Caroll Mitchem, chairman of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners, if any changes would be made to their meetings. Mitchem’s response was to the point. She said that prayers — and only Christian ones — would continue. He was quoted in The Lincoln Times-News.

“A Muslim? He comes in here to say a prayer, I’m going to tell him to leave,” Mitchem said. “I have no use for (those) people. They don’t need to be here praying to Allah or whoever the hell they pray to. I’m not going to listen to (a) Muslim pray.”

Mitchem’s comments caught the attention of local Muslim community as well as others practicing minority faiths in the county, and two of them showed up at the next meeting to speak to the issue. They were Reverend Tony Brown of the North Carolina Piedmont Church of Wicca, and Duston Barto, a Muslim who doesn’t yet belong to a specific spiritual community. During that meeting, commissioners softened Mitchem’s comments into a policy that said that “the religious leaders or chosen leaders of any assembly that periodically and regularly meets in Lincoln County for the purpose of worshiping or discussing their religious perspectives are invited to offer an invocation before a meeting of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners.”

In those words, the two men saw an opportunity to have their faiths included, but the idea quickly grew well beyond a mechanism to promote religious freedom. “The policy said any faith could give a prayer, if it was sponsored by something that met in county,” Brown said. “I don’t know if it was designed to be restrictive, but the thought might have been to put up barriers that ensure only established faiths qualify.”

foothills logoBarto and Brown created the Foothills Interfaith Assembly —  named not for the county, but the more inclusive region of the state — as a way to allow people of different religions to engage with one another around their beliefs. Qualifying to offer prayers was the impetus, but Brown said that from the get-go the deeper idea was to “take advantage of everything else that interfaith can do.”

The first meeting had much better attendance than Brown had expected, and was spent hashing out some of the formative of the assembly. “A dozen people were there, and we went around introducing ourselves and explaining what brought us here, and our personal goals for the group. We hashed those around into group goals, and from that we came up with a list of five guiding principles.”

Those principles were given to a subcommittee which was tasked with writing a mission statement, which Brown expected to be voted upon at the June 30 meeting. That sort of administrivia is expected to become less prominent as the group finds its rhythm.

Based on who attended that first meeting, Brown expects the future get-togethers to offer robust opportunities to learn about different traditions. Besides himself and Barto, the group includes members of the Baha’i faith, a Baptist minister from an intentional Christian community, a Celtic Pagan, and a non-denominational Christian. “The diversity of people was a surprise, especially in Lincoln County, North Carolina,” he said. Interfaith work “always will appeal more to minority faiths, but we can band together, lift each other up, [and have a] better chance of being heard than whispering alone.”

The group’s structure will likely settle into a pattern of education, discussion, and socialization. “Ultimately I hope that people will come together, and in the first part of the meeting a person presents or there is a panel,” Brown explained, for example, “the basics of Baha’i, followed by questions and answers, or a panel on reciprocity with members of different faiths to explain its role in their tradition. It will be dialogue, and meeting as equals.”

sexuality and NRMReview: Sexuality and New Religious Movements. (Part of the Palgrave Studies in New Religions and Alternative Spiritualities series) Edited by Henrik Bogdan and James R. Lewis. (Palgrave Macmillan, 252 Pages)

Few topics can stir us as quickly as sex or sexuality, particularly when it is different from what is assumed to be “right.” Perhaps this is one reason that Sexuality and New Religious Movements is such an engaging read. According to the editors, Henrik Bogdan and James R. Lewis:

Sexuality is intimately connected to questions of identity: who we are as individuals and also our role in society. Human sexuality is thus inextricably linked to cultural, political, and philosophical aspects of life, which are regulated through legal systems based on morality and ethics. Morality and ethics, even in our secularized and late-modern society, are to a large extent based on traditional religious doctrines and teachings (which of course differ in time and place), and it is thus perhaps only natural that new forms of religion often challenge the moral codes and deeply rooted views on sexuality prevalent in the dominant forms of religion and, by extension, in society at large.

Anyone familiar with the marriage equality movement understands the strong role that religion plays in the arguments against gay marriage. In fact, it is difficult to make a case against gay marriage that does not involve religious beliefs that condemn same-sex intimacy. One such slippery slope argument is often framed as a “non-religious” position for “traditional marriage,” though it still takes us back to taboos rooted in religious beliefs. When it comes to our thoughts, our customs, and our laws regarding sexuality and sexual practice, religious beliefs often takes center stage. Not that they have to, but they often do.

Bogdan and Lewis take on the topics of sex and gender in this anthology to give us a peek into beliefs and practices that are less common than the standard-issue Abrahamic ideals. Specifically, they introduce us to sex and gender within western New Religious Movements (NRMs), some of which have received more attention than others.

The editors point out that, often, NRMs are considered nothing more than cults that provide leaders the opportunity to sexually abuse members. They write:

What these critics often fail to take into account, however, is the way that sexuality is actually understood and used by the groups themselves, and to place these teachings and practices within the broader context of the history of religions. As this anthology aims to show, sexual practices that, at face value, seem bizarre or even dangerous might be understood differently when placed in their proper context.

The book continues on with the goal to provide a better understanding of NRMs and to challenge the misconceptions that exist regarding their beliefs and practices where sexuality is concerned.

The anthology presents a series of chapters that each cover one NRM, including one on contemporary Wicca written by writer and historian Chas Clifton. The Branch Davidians, Communes of Osho, and Satanists are all represented in the volume in addition to the views and teachings of Gurdjieff, Adi Da, and Raël. As with any anthology, each chapter varies in depth and breadth since they have different authors. However, the quality of writing is consistently good and, as an academic book, the information goes beyond the simple rehashing of facts, delving into conversation and analysis.

Of all the chapters, the one that I had the strongest reaction to was “Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Empowerment in Mormon Fundamentalist Communities.” After reading the entire book, I was surprised that this was the chapter that generated the most notes, considering all I learned about the fiancées of super-sensitive extraterrestrials within the International Raelian Movement, the ultimate receptivity of the Satanic female altar, and the denunciation of masturbation and same-sex coupling within the writings of Gurdjieff. No, it was the polygamy talk that caught my full attention.

Written by Jennifer Lara Fagen and Stuart A. Wright, this chapter addresses some of the criticisms that have been made against plural marriage and the often-assumed powerlessness of women within Mormon polygamous communities. The writers assert that critics see these women as victims of a patriarchal system, and that this view is “based on the contemporary devaluation of motherhood and conflation of domesticity with oppression that resulted from the deinstitutionalization of marriage and destabilization of gender roles.” They introduce the work of cultural anthropologist Janet Bennion, who argues that Mormon fundamentalist women have alternate ways to achieve power in their communities and that their solidarity is stronger because of the alienating patriarchal control.

They also offer an examination of ideas such as “subservience,” gender roles, and the feminist critique of the “cult of domesticity.” The primary argument presented is that, although these women “do not have the same access to religious or political power as their male counterparts,” it should not be assumed that  they “as a group, are without agency and without voice…”  There are many other problems associated with polygamy within these communities that were not addressed in the chapter, such as the victimization of “lower status males,” the increase in crime due to male competition, and the increase in child abuse and neglect.

The chapter that I was most interested in reading was Clifton’s “Sex Magic or Sacred Marriage: Sexuality in Contemporary Wicca.” His chapter starts with a description of a Beltane ritual then moves into a discussion of the historical roots of Wicca, an exploration of The Great Rite, then the influence of the southern Californian subculture on Paganism. It was all a very interesting read, but what stood out to me the most was the description of the Beltane ritual, where “both lesbian and gay onlookers cheered as the maypole entered the earth.” Clifton touches on the idea of LGBT individuals within Wicca, but I wish this was considered further.

Being a lesbian from the Deep South, I do not harbor any naïve beliefs about Wicca and views on same-sex coupling. Not that I have ever been told that being gay was wrong, but, at times, it has been made clear that I had no place at a Maypole or that I had no right to jump a fire because I did not have a male partner. In my experience, Wiccan metaphors easily lend themselves to heterosexism and this is something I find gets glossed over far too easily.

One of the most difficult tasks when reviewing books about religion is to separate my own religious beliefs from writing about it. There were times when, in reading this book, my jaw dropped in horror, and other times when my MacBook was in danger of becoming airborne. Some of the beliefs and practices described within the pages of this book are off-putting. That being said, editors Bogdan and Lewis set out to put into context views on sex and gender within various new religious movements. They, together with the other authors, succeed in doing just that.

As an academic publication, it is well-written and edited with plenty of footnotes to offer the reader more background material. Sexuality and New Religious Movements is part of Palgrave’s Studies in New Religious and Alternative Spiritualities series. Released in November 2014, it is available for purchase on Amazon and other online retailers.

NORTHAMPTON, MASSACHUSETTS –Climbing trees. Gregorian chants. Black velvet clothes. These are elements of author and priestess Vivianne Crowley’s personal spiritual journey, as told to a room packed with attendees at A Feast of Lights on Jan. 31. Weaving her own experiences and those she has observed together with cards from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, she posited a pattern of spiritual development that many modern Pagans and polytheists might find familiar.

[Photo Credit: Carmel Sastre, CC/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Carmel Sastre, CC/Flickr]

“I was the only child of older parents,” she explained. “We had no electricity at first, no radio or television, so I played for hours on my own each day.” Much of that play was out in the woods, and early her conception of “people” included trees and animals as well as her parents. It was through the trees, she said, that she found Paganism, although it would be many years before she connected her beliefs with that word.

One tree in particular got the young Crowley’s attention in quite a literal way. “I like climbing trees,” she said, in particular, “one that was split by lightning, but still growing.” Her foot could fit in the cleft created by that lightning bolt, but a shift in the wind would close the opening and hold her fast. Rather than panicking, it was an opportunity for her to learn patience and trust. She “let the tree decide” when to free her foot, leaving her to spend considerable time with it. Eventually, she recalled, “I let my consciousness merge with the tree, so that I felt my blood was green, and we communed without shared language.”

Vivianne Crowley

Vivianne Crowley

Those, together with many other experiences had before she was old enough for school, were formative in creating her own path toward Wicca, and she believes that is not unusual. “Childhood experiences are often the beginning of learning to connect the self and other,” she said. Her own experiences, which included spontaneous lucid dreaming and psychic images from her mother asking her what she wanted for lunch, molded her worldview before she had language to articulate it. That caused a bit of conflict when school began. At that time in England, the curriculum included “religious studies which were really Christian studies, and included frightening stories about a god who killed people.”

“Our reality and what we’re told don’t quite match,” she said of herself and other people who started on a Pagan-like path in their youth. “Animals don’t have souls? I didn’t believe that. Animal as deity made more sense to me. I saw The Ten Commandments, and cheered for the golden calf.” In addition to an awareness of nature spirits and a then-radical alternative concept of deity, Crowley said that by the time she was eight years old, she could get out of playing sports by making it rain. This is something she attributes to the altered state of consciousness that she learned communing with that tree. Her classmates were already calling her a “witch.”

Around that time, Crowley was baptized a Roman Catholic, which excused her from “religious studies” because they were considered a violation of the tenets of Catholic doctrine. Instead, Crowley was exposed to Latin mass at a local monastery, complete with Gregorian chants. As a result, “for the first time I got a sense of that other state [of consciousness] while in a building.” She continued to identify as a witch as well as a Catholic, and by the time she was eleven she had formed a coven, which lasted only “until the headmistress found out.”

It wasn’t until she was 14 years old, and the 1960s were unfolding, that Crowley learned a name for what she was feeling. “I saw witches on TV, and they called themselves Wiccans — it was a revelation to me!” Soon thereafter her family moved to London and, after a number of false starts, she was able to discover and be initiated by a coven.

Vivianne Crowley

Vivianne Crowley

“I wore a lot of black velvet clothes, and was attracted to stepping out of the ordinary,” she said. This entire portion of her journey she likened to the Fool card, which usually depicts the titular character setting off alone. “Something protects us at this point. I couldn’t find Wiccans at first, so I tried Buddhists, and mediums, and avoided some pitfalls” before finally meeting “kind witches.” She was clear that she wasn’t claiming that the young are always safe from harm on this quest, only that mistakes borne of that ignorance seem to be softened or minimized to some extent.

While the seeker is under the mantle of the Fool, Crowley likened the spiritual awakening to the Star. Talent in esoteric disciplines blossoms. Interests in incense, tarot, astrology, healing, herbalism, crystals, and a variety of such activities and paraphernalia are sparked by the emerging sensitivity a newcomer to the Pagan path experience.

“The first spells we try often succeed,” she said. As mastery of these ideas and powers grows, an initiate enters into the spiritual adolescence. Crowley compares this to the Sun and Magician cards, something she jokingly called “second-degree-itis” in her own Wiccan path. It’s a period characterized by “youthful arrogance and enthusiasm,” she said. And, it is often a time when one begins to attract students. “The first time you are asked for initiation, it is humbling,” she said, “and ego-inflating.”

Power is illusion, however, and in time the Sun card is replaced by the Moon, the Magician with the Devil. This is a stage many might find familiar, with relationships going wrong and a desire to “own” one’s group often gaining strength. “We realize that there’s no perfect people,” she said, and “we can be angry that our leaders are not perfect.” For small-group traditions, such as Wicca and other practices that fall under the shadow of the Pagan umbrella, she frames the problem in alchemical terms, saying that the challenge is to “accept the lead as well as the gold. People fall out because of relationships, not the path.”

From Rider-Waite Deck [Photo Credit: Julia Mariani / CC lic. Flickr]

From Rider-Waite Deck [Photo Credit: Julia Mariani / CC lic. Flickr]

In the following stage, Crowley said the Devil and Death come to the forefront as best representatives of the experience. “Which tradition is best?” she asked. Some people decide that their own traditions are the one true way, even looking down on other choices or dismissing them “rather than realizing that the path is for the person, just one part of the jigsaw puzzle, not the be-all.” She continued, saying “Some people just drop out” when faced with these obstacles. And if interpersonal challenges aren’t enough, “Sometimes there comes a time when the gods do not speak.”

That is the time of the Hanged Man and the Wheel of Fortune, which Crowley said is characterized by uncertainty and often when “change falls out of one’s pockets.” New ideas don’t fit preconceived notions, leading one’s world to be turned upside-down. “It forces difficult questions,” she said. It is a critical juncture when those, who have long been on a particular path, decide it’s the wrong one.

However, it may be too soon to make that judgment call. Eventually one may “reach a point of understanding,” a point represented by the Hermit and High Priestess, strength and mystery. “You can have your own gods,” Crowley explained, and they are not threatened nor blocked by the gods of others.

When looking back, Crowley said, a person should be able to recognize that they are not the same person who began journey. It is important, she said, to “send our younger selves love and care, and messages of encouragement,” in order to complete the more difficult parts of that journey as “our future selves guide us.”

She explained that such guidance can help one negotiate what to do if one’s student surpass the teacher. This can happen if one’s role is that of a point of strength, rather than a leading light. Such points are more replenishing than ritual in some cases.

“The point of the journey is to bring things back,” she said in closing. “We must give to move things forward, and we all have something to teach.” In that way, the partial knowledge still held about Paganisms of old can, like a phoenix, rise from the ashes in a new form, one that is relevant and vital for the spiritual, environmental, and political challenges of today.

As we reported Friday, October is a popular time for interview Witches. The season also brings a flurry of Halloween-inspired television programming. From the holiday specials to the classic horror films, the entertainment industry capitalizes on our cultural love for all things related to the secular holiday.

[Credit: MANSOUR DE TOTH via CC lic. Wikimedia]

[Credit: MANSOUR DE TOTH via CC lic. Wikimedia]

This phenomenon is nothing new. In the 1930s, Betty Boop appeared in a short called Hall’ween Party (1933). In 1948, Mighty Mouse saved the world in The Witch’s Cat. Many readers will remember looking forward to the yearly October airing of The Wizard of Oz (1939) or, more recently, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). One of the newest Halloween-inspired offerings,Book of Life (2014), capitalizes on the growing popularity of the Mexican Dia de los Muertos aesthetic and tradition.

As we get closer to the actual Oct. 31 date, producers begin offering Halloween-themed episodes of TV series. In its lineup this year, CBS aired a Witch-themed episode of its popular, long-running show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. While the secular Halloween holiday was never mentioned, the show’s title “Book of Shadows” and its subject matter were not arbitrarily chosen to appear in a late October episode.

Sunday’s CSI episode has set off some intense discussion within the Wiccan community. While many believe the show demonstrates a step forward in the depiction of Witches and Wiccans within mainstream entertainment, others were not easily convinced. Massachusetts Priestess Laura Wildman-Hanlon remarked:

I’m annoyed my religion was again dragged out and used as a means to scare people on Halloween. I’m angry at the disrespect paid to my beliefs and my God & Goddess. I’m furious at the writers who could have used the opportunity to debunk these untruths instead of playing to them. 

Was the show a simply a means to “scare people” as Wildman-Hanlon suggests? Was it yet another serving of insulting television fare perpetuating the historically-ingrained, sensationalistic construction of Witchcraft? Or was it positive? Did the writers demonstrate any cultural sensitivity?

Before looking at the specifics of the episode, it is important to be aware the CSI program is very formulaic like most TV dramas. “The Book of Shadows” episode was no exception.The aesthetics and narrative structure fell well-within the CSI storytelling boundaries, including the sensationalism, campy humor and graphic displays of internal anatomy.They didn’t stretch the show’s artistic reach to tell this story.

csi_crime_scene_investigation_logo__140218204850

“Book of Shadows” opens with a teenager filming a video while walking through school hallways. This scene is important because it establishes the main characters of the “who done it?” plot. After we are introduced to the players, a burning body comes running down the hall and then falls dead. Interestingly, this dead teacher is labeled “the Burning Man” and, although not known at the time, is a practicing Witch. While just a minor point, this detail, death by burning, becomes the second reference to Witchcraft. The first, of course, is the title.

Although the show is filled with subtle phrases and imagery maintaining its connection to the theme, it isn’t until the second segment that the narrative really delves into subject of Witchcraft. The coroner discovers a “Life Rune” symbol, which he links to Nazism, gangs and crime and which eventually leads investigators to the coven’s temple space.

The temple scene, itself, was filmed in the classic CSI aesthetic while also recalling elements of the horror film. As CSI Nick Stokes enters the dark room, everything is visually obscured by shadow and a tight camera angle. The limited lighting is blood red and, as the slow-moving camera pans across the space, the only recognizable images are a skull and a pentacle.

In typical CSI fashion, the horror-style scene is followed by scientific explanation and visual clarity. In this case, there is a brief dramatic reenactment that parallels the horror-scene.  Then the director abruptly cuts to a non-engaging, medium shot of the temple room in nearly full light. Everything is visible. CSI D.B. Russell has joined Stokes in exploring the space.

As they investigate, Russell educates Stokes and the audience on what they are seeing in the room. When referring to the pentacle, Stokes says, “I always thought it was the sign of the devil.” Russell replied, “Well you were wrong.”

Along with other similar type comments, Russell says, “[Wicca] is a Pagan religion.” Putting these two temple scenes together, the show plays first with what the viewer expects and then says, “well you were wrong.” This juxtaposition demonstrates a clear step forward in the representation of Witchcraft and Wicca within a modern context of its own making.

Moreover, the writers also note the important distinction that Wicca is a “Pagan religion.” This statement is critical because it moves popular discourse away from the simple point that “Witchcraft is real” or “Wicca is Witchcraft” to “Wicca is one of many religions.” Although encapsulated in a bucket of typical CSI sensationalism, the show’s narrative does demonstrate that the writers did some real homework.

CSI:  The Book of Shadows  [Courtesy: CBS Television]

CSI: The Book of Shadows [Courtesy: CBS Television]

The next important detail to examine is the lab scenes, in which tech David Hodges is dressed in a “relic Druid robe.” To Wildman-Hanlon, these scenes were extremely off-putting. She said, “I was furious to see one of the main characters wearing a silly robe, waving a wand over a cauldron bubbling with fake smoke and obviously making fun of my beliefs.”

David Hodges is largely present for comic relief within the more serious CSI drama schematic. He always takes a campy and comical attitude toward any subject. However, in this case, he was mocking a religious practice, which proves problematic. Along with his robe, Hodges called his lab a “Wiccan Altar” and mentioned a past Wiccan girlfriend who was “a little too earthy” and didn’t have a “bathing spell.” In addition, Pagan viewers may have been offended by the God and Goddess statuettes on his table. Although meant as harmless comedy, the writers went too far for many Pagan viewers as demonstrated by Wildman-Hanlon’s comment.

While the show’s middle portion largely diverts its attention from Witchcraft and Wicca, the narrative returns to the theme by the end. It is at this point the writers’ attempts at sensitivity fall completely apart. We find out that the killer is a Wiccan mother and teacher; the dead coven member was a teacher and drug dealer; the Wiccan principal was sleeping with a student and the High Priest and school janitor had once been a criminal. While the show doesn’t posit any of these characters as purely evil, they are all framed as damaged goods.

However, more problematic than any of that is the “who done it?”conclusion and various subtle details used to intensify and color the story. First, both murders were done by a Wiccan woman, who had been attempting a healing spell. She apparently needed the blood of a “sacrificed youth.” In once scene, the coroner notes that the dead boy’s blood was removed after his murder, which “suggests a Wiccan ritual.” Considering this line alone, it appears as if the writers fell face first into a vat of cultural stereotyping.

All the earlier positive elements and demonstrations of sensitivity become buried by the failings of the conclusion and other narrative details, such as the janitor brandishing his athame in a threatening manor. Through lines such as “Druid spell” to gain “more power” or “May the blackest of darkness smite you down,” a viewer’s preconceived notion of Witchcraft and Wicca are confirmed.

Why pay attention to shows like this one? CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is a fictional drama that posits its universe as real. For viewers, the CSI environment could be their world. There is no fantasy or mythology here. That is the nature of the genre. As such, it presents Witchcraft and Wicca as something real; something the viewers might witness in their daily lives.

This attempt to bring Witchcraft and Wicca out of a fantasy world and into reality is exemplified by the following exchange. Stokes says, “What happened next? No, let me guess, lightening bolts.” Russell replies, “No. a coven meeting.” This is notable change for the construction of Witches and Wiccans within American entertainment. Where most shows, even live-action, posit Witches and magic as elements of fantasy, this shows says “No they are real. They are parents, principals, janitors and science teachers.”

At the same time, CSI‘s realistic nature makes the mistakes all the more difficult to digest. Wildman-Hanlon remarks:

A couple of sentences muttered by a character that ‘Wiccans are peaceful people who work with the energies of nature,’ is lovely but not when the plot heads immediately back into the fiction line saying beneath our practices of harmony actually lies a darker stance where murder/human sacrifice is, according to our beliefs…our Book of Shadows…an acceptable practice if we deem it warranted. 

“The Book of Shadows” was a notable effort with some very positive forward steps in the representation of Witches and Wicca. Unfortunately the writers didn’t go far enough and wound up relying too heavily on good old fashion Halloween entertainment lore for the sake of a scream.