A conversation with Jason Mankey

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SUNNYVALE, Calif –Jason Mankey credits his public visibility as a Pagan to the blog he writes on the Patheos Pagan channel, Raise the Horns. He is also currently that channel’s editor, a position which has put him in the crosshairs during the sometimes-tense ownership transition to BN Media, a company with a strong Christian influences.

He has been praised as a devoted priest of Pan and derided as a corporate minion. In the following conversation, a portrait emerged which is more nuanced than one can often glean from blog posts for and about an individual.

Jason Mankey [courtesy].

The Wild Hunt: Do you do anything with your life other than manage a blog channel at Patheos?

Jason Mankey: Despite what some people believe, Patheos Pagan is not a full-time job. I only spend about 10 hours a week working for Patheos.

The other 30 hours a week I spend at my computer are generally focused on book writing, figuring out what festivals I’m going to next, and creating workshops and rituals. It’s weird to have transitioned into Paganism as a full-time job but I’m mostly there. I’ve started teaching Wiccan-Witchcraft classes at a local store, so crafting lesson plans for that takes a lot of time too.

Because I really (really really) miss talking to human beings during the week, most Tuesdays I spend four hours working at a local used bookstore. In many ways these are my favorite work hours of the week. No one’s yelling at me, and I don’t have to think too much while I’m there. I also spend a lot of time taking care of my wife. I do the cooking and the cleaning. So yes, I do lots of things, and Patheos is only one small part of my life.

TWH: Writing and traveling both could easily be full-time pursuits. How do you balance them?

JM: I don’t think there’s a lot of balance there. If I’m doing one, then I’m not doing the other. The worst is a book deadline during February-March (ConVocation, PantheaCon, Paganicon) because I’m just not disciplined enough to write on a plane or in my hotel room. I know some writers who can do both at the same time, but I’m not one of them.

And festivals aren’t really a full-time thing. They are occasional occurrences, and I’d probably go broke or lose my wife if they were super-frequent. A lot of festivals I end up hitting on my own dime, or only have a few fees waived. (Yes, there are festivals where presenters pay their own way in, even if they have books.)

The kindest festivals will pay my travel costs and give me a place to sleep (usually this is easiest at outdoor festivals), but even if those things are taken care of festivals still end up costing me money. I’m always going to need snacks, cider, and probably some sort of caffeine drink in the middle of the day. I know some writers who take a fee on top of their travel costs, but I don’t think I’m worth that much, and besides, I love what I do. I don’t like to haggle about money.

Writing is mostly a full-time thing I guess, but I have trouble sitting still for six or eight hours a day writing. I’ll write book stuff for three or four hours, and then research something, or work on a blog post for some of the day. I’m lucky that I can dedicate so much of my day to Pagan stuff, a lot of authors work a full 40 to 50 hours a week at a mundane job and then write in the evenings on top of that. I count my blessings, because I know just how lucky I am.

TWH: Since we’re talking about writing, where do you get your ideas?

JM: I try to write about things that interest me. I love history, and I don’t see it written about very much in most Pagan blogs (or books) so I try to include a lot of that in what I do.

A lot of workshop and writing ideas stem from things I’m curious about. I’m not a spiritualist, but I’m fascinated that there was this huge “occult” movement in the United States for nearly 50 years and it’s mostly ignored in our history books.

Spiritualists were involved in all sorts social issues too. They were most all abolitionists, and the suffragist movement had a lot of spiritualists in its ranks. I want to share that story and that history, so that’s part of why I write.

I also think we as Pagans don’t do a very good job remembering our past. Sure we remember a lot of big names like Gardner and Valiente, but what about Leo Martello or Gwydion Pendderwen? We should know their stories and remember their achievements. We wouldn’t be here today without those folks. So keeping our history inspires me to write a lot, even if I can’t give those stories the justice they deserve.

When it comes to books, The Witch’s Athame was something I was asked to write about by Llewellyn. The Witch’s Book of Shadows came about because I was too scared to write anything “bigger” and wanted the tight outline writing a book like that provides.

TWH: Other than your blog, how much influence do your musical tastes have on your writing?

JM: Not all that much. In order to concentrate I tend to listen to jazz and big band stuff while I write. I get distracted when I listen to things with words because I find myself singing along (poorly) and concentrating more on the song than on the writing.

Every once in awhile I might put on some Doors, Loreena McKennitt, or Damh the Bard if I find myself trying to capture a very specific mood or emotion, but that’s rare.

Writing ritual is the one real exception. When working on Yule I’ll listen to Tori Amos’ Christmas album, and Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy for midsummer. But rituals are more personal things, books (and sometimes even blog articles) need to have footnotes and if I’m distracted I’ll miss them. I do love music though. There’s something very “Pagan” about it just in how it moves us. It’s transformative, just like magick.

TWH: Given that they are more personal things to you, how do you feel about rituals in books? Are they helpful to readers?

JM: I hope so, because I include a few in every book. Ritual can be hard to write, and for many years the rituals in our “101 books” were really rudimentary. I think we’ve learned a lot as a community over the last 30 years about how to write rituals in a way that are more inclusive and have more involvement between everybody.

With one exception, I’ve never seen writing ritual as something personal. It makes me feel more like a chef than anything else. I’m going to attempt to create something, and how it’s interpreted is up to each individual at the ritual. Great ritual writing is about setting up and creating the circumstances for a spiritual experience, what I don’t think you can do dictate is how each person in circle is going to interpret that experience. How a ritual resonates is generally the personal part.

I will add that in April of 2001 my grandmother died, and it came right as I was writing our community’s Beltane ritual. I was really close to my grandma and it hit me especially hard. (She was the first family member close to me to die.) That ritual ended up being personal, and it’s the only ritual I can remember writing that (and I know it sounds cliche) bared my soul to everyone. I remember crying while writing and being surrounded by flowers, which were beautiful, but were only there because they were memorial flowers. It was so strange to be focused on “rebirth” and “life” while writing a Beltane ritual and being surrounded by death. I somehow put all that of into the ritual, and then lost it after the ritual was over.

This was right before the age of everyone having a laptop or even a home computer so I wrote the whole ritual out on notebook paper. That’s one I’d like to get back.

Mankey with Geraldine Beskin in London’s Atlantis Bookshop [courtesy]

TWH: Have you ever participated in a ritual that you wrote, but were not facilitating?

JM: With some frequency close to home. When I was helping to run our local open circle I’d often end up writing ritual but then opt not to have a part in it. It’s fun to watch your words come to life without having to actually say them.

In my eclectic coven I created our ritual structure, so in some ways we are always using “my ritual” when we meet even if I’m not doing the heavy lifting that night. One of the things I probably like about being a Gardnerian is that I get to turn off my brain and use someone else’s ritual for awhile. That’s always nice.

TWH: Wicca is strongly associated with gender balance; Raven Kaldera recently observed that that duality is as important to Wiccan as communion is to Catholics. In your view, is there a place for non-binary persons in Wicca? If so, what place is it?

JM: As a practicing Wiccan-Witch (and a Gardnerian one to boot) the idea that “duality is as important to Wicca as communion is to Catholics” strikes me as a bit odd. There’s a part of me that wants to answer that with a sassy, “is Raven a Wiccan?” but that’s probably not going to be productive.

There are certainly some Wiccan traditions that place a strong emphasis on duality, and then there are others that do not. I believe Wicca is probably best defined by its practice and not its theology, which has always been hard to ascertain anyway.

And of course there’s a place for non-binary persons in Wicca. My deities are representative of everything’, including every gender and the genderless. And their place in the circle is wherever they want their place in the circle to be. The world of “Wicca” is a pretty big place, and there’s a lot of room within it.

TWH: What in the heck do you do for Patheos? Are you pulling the strings of a vast, conspiratorial web of intrigue?

JM: We have ties to both the Illuminati and several Rosicrucian orders. Our plan is to get Lady Sheba anointed (posthumously) as the Queen of all Witches and Pagans. From there it’s just total world domination.

[Author’s note: Mankey’s response included an emoticon after the above paragraph to indicate he was joking. It was not reproduced here, but he was in fact joking in his initial response to the question. He then continued with a serious response]

My job at Patheos Pagan constitutes a few specific things. I run our social media accounts, which means I spend a lot of time on Facebook scheduling posts from Patheos, and other places. We run articles from a wide range of sites on our Facebook page.

I don’t “edit” writers in the traditional sense. Writers who have blogs are free to write nearly anything and everything they want (other than badmouthing Patheos). When they are done they post it. I don’t see it until it’s posted just like everyone else.

I don’t go back and “edit” posts once they are up. I might fix a typo or something, but I’ve never changed the meaning of a post or even done any significant “editing.” Most of the time when I go into a post it’s to add or remove a picture. Images are great for promoting posts, and are also a great way to get sued, so I monitor pictures to make sure they are legal to use.

I don’t agree with everything that’s published at Patheos, and it’s not my job to. We want writers with different opinions and philosophies, which I think is representative of Paganism. We aren’t all liberals and we don’t agree on every issue and that should be okay.

I’m also in charge of recruiting writers for Patheos, and we are always looking to bring new writers into the fold. Bringing in a new blog is the most fun part of my job, and it’s really satisfying to see a new writer’s post go viral.

I also function as a liaison of sorts between Patheos (now owned by BeliefNet) and the writers at Patheos Pagan. It’s a tough balancing act because I’m not just the channel manager at Patheos Pagan, I’m one of our writers, and have been since 2012.

Patheos is a very big website and the traffic from the Pagan Channel is only a very tiny bit of the site’s traffic, but they’ve always treated the Pagan channel as an important piece of the puzzle. I get treated the same way and paid the same amount of money as the channel manager at Patheos Evangelical or Patheos Catholic. In my five years at Patheos I feel as if they’ve gone above and beyond to make us (the Pagans) feel welcome. There have been some bumps in the road, few relationships are perfect, but I think we’ve been treated pretty well there all things considered.

TWH: Let’s talk about the intersection of blogging and Paganism. For starters, has writing and managing blogs affected you as a Pagan?

JM: Blogging at Patheos Pagan has changed my entire life, and that’s not an exaggeration. Without Raise the Horns there are no books, no trips to Pagan Spirit Gathering as a featured presenter, none of that stuff, and I mean it.

I blogged a little bit before Patheos, and I had written in some magazines and done a lot of workshops, but I found my voice at Raise the Horns. That’s when I started putting together the discipline needed to write well (check out my output there in 2012/13-just awful!).

When I got my own blog there in 2012 it was such a big deal to me. Back then Patheos hosted the Wild Hunt, and Teo Bishop was a huge presence in the online community, and Star Foster was was amazing and writing nearly all the time, and my blog was right there next to those; it felt like such an honor.

The platform and potential audience just felt so big that it really made me work harder to live up to what everyone there was doing at the time. And the Pagan blogosphere is smart, the writers are smart, and the commenters are smart. You have to be on top of your game or you’ll get laughed out of the room.

There are a lot of blogs that survive on their own, but there’s something about being on a “blog hub” whether that’s Patheos Pagan, Witches and Pagans and now Pagan Bloggers, that I think is good for blogs and good for the community. “Like attracts like” is a fundamental rule of magick, and I feel like I benefited a lot from being only a click away from Star, PVSL, and everyone else who has ever written there over the years.

For all the gifts that blogging has given me, there’s been a less than ideal side to it too. There are several gray hairs on my head (hidden by dye, but I know they are there) that have come directly from being involved in the online world. I don’t like to get into it, but the online world has made me severely depressed at points, especially over the last two years.

I’m more cautious than I used to be, less trusting too, and I think that is a direct result of some experiences I’ve had online. There’s a lot more than could be said, but what good would it do?

Jason Mankey


TWH: Did Star Foster discover you, then, and invite you to blog at Patheos?

JM: Actually it was Jason Pitzl [founder of The Wild Hunt] who first suggested Patheos to me. He then got me in touch with Star and we talked about a blog there. That got put on the back burner and after a few months I started blogging at Agora (our shared blog at Patheos Pagan).

I was at Agora from about Imbolc to Beltane and when I asked Star about writing more at Agora she just said, “Do you want your own blog?” That was June of 2012 I believe. Star did come up with the name, and Patheos designed the banner. So Star did have a lot to do with it.

Her footprint from her days at Patheos is still pretty big. I think she brought in John Beckett and she created the Agora.

TWH: [At Patheos] in effect writers are paid to draw eyeballs to the sight. That has consequences such as an ad density that sometimes slows down page loads or elicits complaints from readers, and an understandable pressure to get more pages out of writers to convert into views. Do you think those complaints have merit, or is that just the best way to get Pagan voices out there? Are other models, not used at Patheos, which you’d be interested in trying, if only in an alternate reality?

JM: Up until now your questions were so nice and easy!

Patheos tried a subscription-based model, and the amount of people who signed up for it could be counted on my fingers and toes. I think people will pay for news, but not much else online, and that leaves us with advertisements. No one likes ads, but the alternatives only rarely seem to work. I’d love for Patheos Pagan (and Patheos in general) to be sustainable without ads, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.

Patheos take any trouble with advertisements very seriously. Response to things such as “my phone was highjacked by a free iPhone ad” are immediately looked into and hopefully fixed.Every major website I visit has advertisements, and occasionally those ads are terrible or highjack my phone and take me to the App Store. Sadly, that’s a part of the internet.

Hopefully when someone writes something it will draw eyeballs to the site, but I’ve never felt a whole lot of pressure from Patheos (old ownership or new) to get people to write. Do they want us to write? Certainly. Are people removed from Patheos for not writing? Absolutely not. We’ve had blogs lie dormant for a solid year when a writer has something going on in their life, and then they come back and it’s fine. If that’s pressure, we are really failing at it.

Isn’t the point of nearly every website to draw readers in? Even websites that exist through donations still want readers; if they don’t have readers there won’t be any donations.

I think Patheos is still one of the best ways to get voices from the Pagan community out into the wider world. It’s not the only way of course, but it has more reach than many other sites, and I think it’s great to see Pagans writing side by side with people from a wide variety of faiths.