Using a Wiccan to Call a Bluff and other Pagan News of Note

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Top Story: In Marion, Illinois, the city council is weighing the decision of whether to allow a local group to erect a Ten Commandments monument on the city’s Town Square. Enter atheist activist Rob Sherman, who says he’ll bring a lawsuit against the city if they erect the Ten Commandments monument without also allowing a display by a local Wiccan.

“If a Ten Commandments monument is placed on Marion’s Tower Square, resident Robert Donelson wants equal access to share the views of his Wiccan religion … “If Christians are going to have their viewpoint up here, let them at least put up ours,” he said. Donelson, who said he has been a Wiccan for five or six years, was introduced at the news conference by Rob Sherman, the atheist from northern Illinois who has warned city leaders they could be in for a legal battle if the Ten Commandments go up on public property … “I am calling Mayor (Bob) Butler’s bluff,” Sherman said. If the city allows the Ten Commandments, it must also allow room for other religious viewpoints, Sherman said.”

According to Sherman, Mayor Bob Butler has vowed to get the Judeo-Christian monument erected, and that he would only allow the viewpoint of the majority to be represented on the Town Square. Mayor Butler goes further in local paper The Southern, and mocks the Wiccan faith.

“I do not believe Mr. Sherman’s comments are worthy of comment. Period,” he said of Sherman’s threat of a lawsuit. Butler did say that the chances of a Wiccan viewpoint making it onto Tower Square were slim. “I only recently heard of the Wiccans and I am not impressed. They probably come from a different planet, maybe the same one Mr. Sherman comes from,” Butler said.

So much for equal access! I guess to Mayor Butler, some faiths are more equal than others under the law. It looks like Sherman will get to file his lawsuit against Marion, though there’s still a chance the City Council will back down under the threat of encroaching Wiccans. This isn’t the first time the seemingly frightening prospect of Wiccan participation has been used to influence local politics, though in some cases they are used as a fig-leaf of diversity. I hope that Robert Donelson knows what he’s getting himself into.

The Divine Feminine in Judaism: Tablet Magazine profiles Kohenet, the Hebrew Priestess Insitute, and other groups on the fringes of modern Judaism that (re)embrace the Divine Feminine, earth-based spirituality, Jewitchery, Jewish Paganism, and related concepts. Tablet notes that Kohenet priestesses, unlike Jewish converts to Paganism, stays rooted in a Jewish identity.

Back when Jewish Renewal and Starhawk were struggling to get off the ground, the notion of Jewish paganism was unimaginable because it defied the monotheistic core of Judaism. In recent years, though, Kohenet and other earth-based Jewish groups are challenging that monotheistic essence; in their view, Judaism and paganism can coexist. As Hammer and Shere write in an unpublished manuscript about Hebrew priestesses, Kohenet holds “a soft position with regard to monotheism.” While their work “conceives of God/dess as a unity,” they “welcome women who experience the divine as a multiplicity.” But unlike Starhawk and other Jews who became pagans, today’s earth-based Jews ground their theology explicitly in Jewish traditions and texts. “What’s new here isn’t that Jews are doing paganism,” says Jay Michaelson, a columnist for The Forward and an expert on Jewish spirituality who confesses that he has become more “pagany” over the last few years. “It’s that they’re staying Jews.”

The article also notes that these movements, despite their growing popularity in some areas, haven’t found much traction within mainstream Judaism, and two quoted Rabbis are quite critical (one calls Pagan Jews “perverts”). However, The Forward’s Jay Michaelson, who’s written about Jewish Paganism, notes that “pagany” elements have been emerging in mainstream synagogues lately, so who knows what the future may hold for the Jewish Priestesses, Jewish Witches, and Jewish Pagans.

Cults or Pranksters? The Lancaster Intelligencer Journal explores whether a recent grave robbery (on Friday the 13th) was the work of a disturbed prankster, or a practitioner of Palo Mayombe. So far local authorities seem to be reserving judgement, and the expert the paper talks to doesn’t seem to be heading in sensationalist directions.

Tony Kail is a Tennessee author and educator who has studied what he calls “magico religious activity.” He spoke to Stamford police about their case and is consulted by other departments about similar cases. Kail cautioned against jumping to any conclusions about a grave robbery. “A disturbed grave alone,” he said, “is not an indication of a magico religious activity,” he said. “Historically, many of the incidents involving grave thefts are done by those who aren’t involved in actual magico religious cultures. Individuals who ‘roll their own’ take elements from established religions and create their own subcultures.” Bones used in African-based religious traditions are used to represent ancestors, he said. But most bones used in Palo Mayombe are obtained through legal means, said Kail, who wrote “A Cop’s Guide to Occult Investigations” and “Magico Religious Groups and Ritualistic Activities: A Guide for First Responders.” Though disturbing, not every grave robbery is linked to rituals or the occult.

Tony Kail of Worldview Consulting is given high marks by Pagan author Dorothy Morrison, so hopefully things won’t veer into racial or religious profiling for what may be the work of a single disturbed individual. Crates, candles, and even animal parts, do not a religious ritual make. Whoever was the culprit, let’s hope he or she is soon caught and brought to justice.

Queens Tribune Faces Scrutiny: Those of you who followed my coverage of New York City Councilman Dan Halloran’s political campaign may remember that it was the Queens Tribune who outed him in a sensationalist fashion, nearly derailing his campaign in the process. Many pointed out that the Queens Tribune had a sister company that did consulting for his opponent, and that this created a conflict of interest for the paper, something the paper strenuously denied. Now the Queens Tribune is facing scrutiny again, as it’s been revealed that Democratic State Sen. Shirley Huntley paid 30,000 dollars to Multi-Media, run by Queens Tribune Executive Vice President and Associate Publisher Michael Nussbaum, for political consulting.

“It’s uncomfortable and it crosses the line,” said [Richard] Parker, a fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center. “You should not have a newspaper executive simultaneously serving as a consultant to a candidate being covered by the paper.” Huntley said Nussbaum’s dual roles don’t pose any conflicts for her. “I hired him as a political consultant,” she said. “Everyone knows he’s with the paper. I assume this is a separate business.” Huntley, facing a tough primary against Democrat Lynn Nunes, insisted she wasn’t looking to garner favorable coverage from the weekly newspaper by hiring Nussbaum.

The article notes that it’s an “open secret” that Nussbaum runs both businesses, and mentions the Halloran campaign as a previous instance where the interests of the consulting company and the paper seemed to merge in an uncomfortable fashion. Will this latest coverage finally “out” Queens Tribune as a partisan paper? How impartial can you be when your parent company is cutting checks from the people you’re supposed to cover? I wonder how many local journalists are now comparing Multi-Media’s client list against the Queens Tribune’s coverage?

Two Kinds of Witchcraft in India: Two separate articles published the same day in the Calcutta Telegraph spotlight two different kinds of Witchcraft in India. The first looks at the problem of witch persecutions and killings, around 2,500 in the last 14 years, and efforts to “rehabilitate” women who’ve been ostracized.

Three months ago, it was decided that Purangi Nag, a Munda woman who worked in the Soongachi tea estate in Jalpaiguri’s Matelli block, was a witch. Purangi’s husband had died seven years ago; her son and his wife were killed by a rogue elephant. The widow’s neighbour, Birbal, has a son who fell ill soon after these mishaps. Purangi, he declared, was a witch who had cast a spell on the neighbourhood. One night, Birbal and three of Purangi’s neighbours — all men — assaulted her, injuring her grievously and forcing her to flee with her seven-year-old grandson, Dhiren, to her brother in a neighbouring village. When she approached the local thana, she was handed over to a temporary shelter run by the North Bengal People’s Development Centre.

The second profiles popular Indian Wiccan Ipsita Roy-Chakraverti, the “beloved witch”.

“When I started in 1987 in Calcutta, ‘witch’ used to be a bad word, an abusive expression,” she said. She went on to recount how she has struggled lifelong to remove the stigma attached to the word. In the process she has had to face “brickbats”, often quite literally. But Ipsita’s success in this context is limited only to a section of the urban populace. In Indian villages, ‘witch’ is not only a “bad” but also a dangerous word. Even in the city, a witch is generally that evil woman who has stolen one’s husband. How did the word ‘witch’ acquire a sinister ring and the worshipper of Goddess Diana become the ‘daiyen’ or ‘daini’? Ipsita said it was because of the marginalization of pagan cultures by mainstream religions. “This battle was a gendered one as well,” she added. Witchcraft has feminist tendencies as witches were the “worshippers of the mother goddess”, while conventional religions promoted patriarchy.

Wicca, particularly among the young, and in urban areas, continues to grow. Roy-Chakraverti has worked, sometimes with the government, to prevent witchcraft slayings and female infanticide. Can the growth of Wicca, and the subsequent redefinition of the term “witchcraft” change the deadly superstitions in some rural areas? What tensions will we see as these phenomenons start to converge? India is a prime example of how witch-killings is quickly becoming a Pagan issue, even though those harassed, abused, and murdered, would never claim the term for themselves.

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