As we reach the close of 2007, it is time to stop for a moment and take stock of the previous year. When you look at (and for) news stories regarding modern Paganism (and related topics) every day of the year, you can sometimes lose focus on the larger picture. So it can be a helpful thing to look at the broad strokes, the bigger themes, the events and developments that will have lasting impact on the modern Pagan movement. What follows are my picks for the top ten stories from this past year involving or affecting modern Pagans.
10. Important passages within the Pagan and occult communities: 2007 saw the passing of some highly influential and respected members of our extended community, the most notable being the visionary philosopher, author, and mystic, Robert Anton Wilson.
Wilson is perhaps best-known for his work on “The Illuminatus! Trilogy” with co-author Robert Shea. The books incorporated elements of Discordianism, conspiracy theory, magick, and various 60s counterculture references to create a “fairytale for paranoids”. Since then Wilson published several books exploring philosophy, science, and religion. Most notably his “Cosmic Trigger” series. But RAW was hardly the only notable passing in 2007, we also saw key Goddess spirituality movement figure Shekhinah Mountainwater (author of “Ariadne’s Thread: A Workbook of Goddess Magic”) cross the veil after a long struggle with cancer, and Tim Sebastion, chief of the Secular Order of Druids, who died after a long illness.
Other notable passages include artist Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge (partner to Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, and member of Psychic TV), influential Salem Witch and event organizer Shawn Poirier, and Starwood organizer, musician, and SubGenius, Chas Smith.
09. Witch School in the News: This past year saw quite a lot of coverage for the (in)famous Internet-based Witch School. The year began with news that the SCI FI Channel was planning a reality television series set in the school’s campus (then located in Hoopeston, IL), but this development seemed to fall apart when Ed Hubbard announced he was selling the school through E-Bay.
“Imagine, if you could buy Harry Potter’s Hogwarts? Well, the world’s first and largest public school of Wiccan and Witches has become available for sale. Starting Tuesday, April 10th, WitchSchool.com will be auctioned off to the highest bidder during an eBay Auction. If you ever wanted to have your very own cyber school of magick and witchcraft, this is the auction for you. So you can own and run your very own Academy for Magick and Witchcraft. If you would love to become the next Dumbledore, this is your chance to do so.”
After a flurry of controversy, mixed-signals, and announcements concerning them leaving their physical campus in Hoopeston (due to the alleged unfriendliness of the town) Witch School was sold to a coalition of buyers from the Correllian Nativist Tradition with Don Lewis at the head. I thought that would be the last we head from the school in 2007, but Witch School ended up gaining national press attention after the tiny troubled town of Rossville, IL went on the offensive following the school’s relocation there. While tensions have since eased up, it was certainly a PR coup for the Internet business. It remains to be seen if Witch School will manage to gain the publics attention in 2008, or if they will return to relative obscurity sans tales of persecution. But they certainly made a mark on Pagan-related news in 2007.
08. “Bunky” the Multi-Millionaire: The media became positively entranced when Wiccan Ellwood “Bunky” Bartlett won over 30 million dollars in the Maryland State Lottery “Mega Millions” drawing. This encouraged witty bon mots like “Dude, talk about blessed be” and “Christians who pray for lucky lottery tickets but never win might consider switching over to Wicca.” Of course the press soon wanted to know how he was going to spend his newly-won loot, and Bunky announced that he plans to build a Pagan-run seminary. While there have certainly been rich or well-off Pagans before (though they are most-often “in the broom closet”), Bartlett is the first to gain a high-profile, and will certainly continue to gain press attention if (or when) he starts spending that money to benefit his religion.
07. Pagans in Prison (and the books they can read): Incarcerated Pagans and Heathens made the news in increasingly large numbers this past year. I personally blogged eight such stories, and I know for a fact that more occurred that I never got a chance to report on. Virtually all the claims regarded the issue of religious free exercise and what materials a Pagan prisoner should/would be allowed. But while those legal struggles mainly happened on the journalistic sidelines, Pagans, prisons, and their religious rights hit center stage when the Federal Bureau of Prisons enacted a controversial new policy that purged every religious book in Federal Prison libraries that wasn’t on a then-secret list (in order to inhibit “extremism”).
“Government does have a legitimate interest to screen out things that tend to incite violence in prisons,” Mr. [Douglas] Laycock [professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School] said. “But once they say, ‘We’re going to pick 150 good books for your religion, and that’s all you get,’ the criteria has become more than just inciting violence. They’re picking out what is accessible religious teaching for prisoners, and the government can’t do that without a compelling justification. Here the justification is, the government is too busy to look at all the books, so they’re going to make their own preferred list to save a little time, a little money.”
Massive controversy ensued amongst religious groups both liberal and conservative, which only in
tensified when the amazingly flawed lists leaked to the public. The BOP soon reversed their actions and restored the pulled books, but the policy has only been postponed, and come early 2008 we could be faced yet again with the majority of books for (Federal) Pagan prisoners being pulled, and an approved list made by unnamed “experts” put in its place. So expect the rights of Pagan prisoners to continue to make the news in 2008.
06. Paganism (Ancient and Modern) Continues to Influence Pop-Culture: Pagan and occult themes continued to make headway into popular culture in 2008. The television series “Rome” (which had one of the most accurate portrayals of Roman polytheism to date) aired its second (and final) season, the masterful adult fairytale “Pan’s Labyrinth” took home three Academy Awards, while films like “300”, and “Beowulf” looked to a pre-Christian era to find its heroes (while a certain Pirate franchise invoked a goddess to help wrap up their story). 2007 also saw the release of documentaries concerning notorious occultist Aleister Crowley, and cultural appropriation within New Age communities, and a new-found emphasis on occult and supernatural themes in television.
“The prevalence of supernatural plots ‘is reflective of increasing anxiety – personal, economic and national’ that pervades the American mood, said Mr. Rash, who was in New York last week to attend the networks’ presentations … Most of the coming new shows ‘are playing to viewers’ desire to be in fantasyland,’ said Shari Anne Brill, senior vice president and director of programming at Carat USA in New York, part of the Carat division of the Aegis Group, adding, ‘The real world has become such a horrendous place that people are looking for magic to avoid the tragic.'”
Pagans continued to make appearances on reality television, and exploitive daytime talk-shows, while a film full of Scottish myths and folktales (shot entirely in Gaelic) gained rave critical reviews. In addition, production news surfaced about a feature film concerning Aleister Crowley, a re-envisioning of the classic cult-film “The Wicker Man”, and a possible television show starring Greek gods. Meanwhile, Walden Media learned that if you cut the pagan elements out of a classic story, the movie will flop.
This has been a great year for Pagan-themed music, from Wyrd-folk compilations to Bjork and Tori Amos. Loads of great Pagan and occult books came out this year as well. Oh, and the last Harry Potter book came out, but didn’t you hear it was all a Christian allegory? But in any case, popular culture continues to become increasingly Pagan-friendly, and I don’t see the trend slowing down any time soon.
Tomorrow I will post the top five Pagan stories for 2007. In the meantime, I invite you to check out the top religion stories from some different perspectives. Time magazine’s top ten religion stories, the 2007 Top Religion Stories as selected by Religion Newswriters, the Barna group’s four “mega-themes” from their 2007 research, Christianity Today’s top stories of 2007, and Terry Mattingly gives us his vote for 2007’s top religious story.