Thoughts on Pagan Studies after the 2016 AAR Meeting (2)

1. A Colorado Springs hotel banquet hall, early 1980s.

A young business reporter at the Colorado Springs Sun, I am attending a big luncheon meeting of the Colorado Association of Realtors (CAR) because the speaker is someone whom I want to cover.

Before we eat, a Protestant Christian minister delivers an invocation in the name of Jesus Christ. The CAR public relations director, a “business friend” of mine,1)We have some other connections — I learn that as a teen she babysat my uncle’s kids in Denver leans over and whispers, “So much for our Jewish members.”

“So much for the Wiccan journalist,” I think silently, but I am used to being the tiniest minority.

2. A San Antonio, Texas, hotel banquet room, 21 November 2016

For the last time (see previous post), I have risen early to attend the 7:15 a.m. breakfast meeting of AAR program-unit chairs. It’s usually a light buffet meal followed by announcements about new staff appointments, policy changes, and the like. But this time, speaker after speaker veers off into The Election.

All weekend, in fact, I had been subjected to a lot of “inflation” in the psychoanalytic sense. The wrong guy won the election; consequently, the American political system would collapse and indeed, life as we know it was threatened on a planetary scale. Because it’s all about us Americans and what we do.2)Disclaimer: I did not vote for Donald Trump, but he is not the End of the World either. Get a grip, people.

Like the Christian minister at the luncheon, every speaker assumed that every other person in the hall shared his or her political position.

This assumption was richly ironic, considering that the AAR is always talking about strength-through-diversity, etc. The hall held atheists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, even a couple of Pagans, with all racial groups represented — but politically, apparently, we were a monoculture.

No hedging, no qualifying, no metadiscourse, no reflexivity — this was sermonizing, with the assumption that everyone in the room was the same.

Some of my critical theory-oriented religious-studies friends are always accusing the AAR as being quasi-theological and churchy.3)They usually maintain membership in the North American Association for the Study of Religion as well. This day they would have been right.

Leaving aside President-elect Trump, I started thinking that these “normative political and theological approaches” (to quote Russ McCutcheon’s letter) were also an impediment to my sub-discipline, Pagan studies.4)We practitioner-scholars have already been accused of being “caretakers” rather than “critics,” to use McCutcheon’s terminology.

I am more and more pre-occupied with questions of how, for example, taking polytheism seriously as a way of describing the cosmos challenges some ingrained assumptions that remain within the larger discipline of academic religious studies even in 2016.

Monotheism is just assumed, really. Galina Krasskova described a recent interaction with some of her fellow grad students:

They were teasing me (I’m obviously the only polytheist in the class, and these two knew that so we were throwing good-natured zingers back and forth) about being a polytheist who studies theology and I said something to the effect that we’re taking it back. That actually brought them up short and one said “but you never had it…Pagans didn’t have theology.” I’ve been pondering that (erroneous) statement ever since because it’s not an uncommon attitude in academia.

I am not saying that we in the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group should be doing theology, but we could be asking in a meta- sort of what what Pagan theologians are saying and writing.

We may never be part of the Big Five (or Six) religious traditions in the academy, but we can continue, as Krasskova says, challenging their “unspoken paradigms.” Our little field’s existence in the academy tests all their fine language about diversity.

Notes   [ + ]

1. We have some other connections — I learn that as a teen she babysat my uncle’s kids in Denver
2. Disclaimer: I did not vote for Donald Trump, but he is not the End of the World either. Get a grip, people.
3. They usually maintain membership in the North American Association for the Study of Religion as well.
4. We practitioner-scholars have already been accused of being “caretakers” rather than “critics,” to use McCutcheon’s terminology.

Thoughts on Pagan Studies after the 2016 AAR Meeting (1)

From the 15th through the 23rd, I was either on the road or attending the annual joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature.1)Despite its name, it does offer occasional sessions that touch on ancient Pagan religions in the Roman empire. I refer to it as either “10,000 introverts”2)9,500 this year or “my social life for the year.”

Christine Hoff Kraemer switched hats this year, and instead of presenting, wrote a summary of the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group’s sessions for The Wild Hunt, and you should go read it.

As she said, it is my last year as co-chair; we serve a three-year term, renewable once, so I am term-limited. This autumn I had been savoring a sense of relief that I was finished. I was more than ready to pass the responsibility of report-writing and session-organizing to new people. (Since my co-chair lives in Norway, I wound up with most of the bureaucratic responsibilities.)

And then when we had our steering committee meeting to start working on next year’s session, I suddenly had a mild attack of “empty-classroom syndrome,” what you feel at the end of every teaching year, even if you too cannot wait to get out the door, just like the students. I was suddenly a has-been. No more VIP blue ribbon on my name tag!

But life goes on. I invented a new job for myself, collecting archival information on the group — now eleven years old — to help for our next five-year-review. For complicated AAR reasons, the last one was not in 2015, as you might think if you just counted years.

There is all this stuff dumped on my desk: program book, notebooks with notes about books to look for,  information to send to Person X, and ideas for writing.

I talked with a couple of editors in the field of new religious movements about the archive on the Wiccan murder case that I aquired last August, and they were encouraging that it could be a conference presentation and maybe a journal article. I am still not sure how to treat it beyond journalistically; it does not feel like an obvious “new religious movements and violence” thing, but maybe some critical approach will make itself known if I just start writing.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Despite its name, it does offer occasional sessions that touch on ancient Pagan religions in the Roman empire.
2. 9,500 this year

Jared Diamond Was Wrong—The Greenland Norse Adapted

Medieval chess pieces carved from Greenlandic walrus ivory (National Museums Scotland).

A new article in the journal Science refutes Jared Diamond’s claim that the 400-year-old Norse colony in Greenland failed because its habitants failed to adapt to the land.

Diamond’s thesis in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed was that the Norse made bad ecological decisions. As one reviewer summarizes,

The problem with the settlements . . . was that the Norse thought that Greenland really was green; they treated it as if it were the verdant farmland of southern Norway. They cleared the land to create meadows for their cows, and to grow hay to feed their livestock through the long winter. They chopped down the forests for fuel, and for the construction of wooden objects. To make houses warm enough for the winter, they built their homes out of six-foot-thick slabs of turf, which meant that a typical home consumed about ten acres of grassland.

Diamond, popularizing earlier research, said that the Christian Norse settlers clung to European lifeways of crops and cattle, while the arriving Inuit lived by hunting marine animals. New research shows that it was not that simple:

In 2012, NABO researchers clinched the case that the Greenlanders ate a marine diet by analyzing human bones in Norse graveyards. Animals that live in the sea have ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes that differ from those found in terrestrial animals, and this isotopic signature is passed on to the people who eat them. The Norse bones show that as the settlement developed from the 11th to the 15th century, their diet contained ever more marine protein. Far from clinging to livestock as temperatures fell, the Norse instead managed a successful subsistence system with “flexibility and capacity to adapt,” wrote the author of the 2012 paper, Jette Arneborg from the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

Nor were the Norse incompetent farmers, as Diamond and others have suggested. Soil geographer Ian Simpson of the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom says previous studies overestimated the Norse contribution to erosion in Greenland. New pollen and soil data show that the Norse allowed fields and what little forest existed to recover after tilling and turf cutting. And in analyses of soil and lake sediment cores, researchers have found chemical and paleoecological clues indicating that Norse farmers skillfully maintained pastures with manure fertilizer and irrigation ditches.

The disappearance of the colony is still a mystery. There is no evidence for war with the Inuit. Climate change — the Little Ice Age — definitely played a part, but politics and trade disruptions were another part. Some historians suggest that too many young adults, seeking better opportunities, returned to Iceland or Norway, leaving the colony to simply dwindle away.

Still, they had a long run, and leaving a mystery behind is paradoxically one way to be remembered.

Ancient Music: “Time Demands an End”

I often like to post re-creations of ancient music. Supposedly, the “Song of Seikilos” is the oldest that has music and lyrics. It is Greek, dating from around 100 CE.

The words can be translated as,

While you live, shine
have no grief at all
life exists only for a short while
and time demands an end.

Blogger Rod Dreher says it reminds him of a song by Beck, which contains a vague reference to “pagans”: “Beck Sings of Seikolos.”

And a commenter says wait, that ancient tune is on the sound track of Sid Meier’s game Civilization 5.

I played earlier versions of Civilization (and its offshoot Colonization, a/k/a The Barbarous Years).

But I just wanted to stay in the Bronze Age, sending out caravans, not progress to railroads and rocket ships.

Time demands an end.

“American Gods” as a Challenge to the Study of Religion

I am still waiting to see American Gods on the screen; meanwhile, scholars of religion are turning to the book and upcoming TV series to see how they challenge conventional views of what “religion” is, particulary in the classroom.

In the first of a series at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog — it’s in the sidebar as “Religion Bulletin” — Eliza Rosenburg writes,

Most people in the [religious studies] discipline would probably skip past the question of who Mr. Wednesday is, and the story dispenses with it quickly as well. Even before it answers the question of his identity for the readers, however, it introduces another question that will inform the rest of the narrative: What, exactly, is “religion”? We raise this old saw in the first session of every introductory class, and American Gods wisely declines to offer another insufficient definition. Instead, the protagonist’s experiences are ones that resonate with a classroom full of curious and frustrated students who have been struggling through an impossible task.

People whose definition of religion is shaped by the question, “What do you/they believe?” are also challenged by the world of American Gods, she writes.

As someone working in Pagan studies, the obvious — to us — differences between the ways that contemporary Pagans create religion are a given, but maybe we don’t explicate them enough. Polytheism vs. monotheism is just part of it.

The article I wrote recently on “Contemporary Pagan, Wiccan, and Native Faith Movements” for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion  “was so fascinating and generated so much interest among our readers,” said an Oxford University Press editor that she invited me to write a blog post. Well, flattery will get you a long way, so of course I said yes. It was published on the 2nd of November. (I wonder why.)

In my blog post, I wanted to talk about how contemporary Pagan traditions challenge ideas of “religion” too, but I had two problems. First, for the presumed audience, I would have to give a bit of a history lesson. Second, there was a 700–1,000 word limit.

As a result, I felt that the title, “Archaic and postmodern, today’s pagans challenge ideas about ‘religion,’” promised more than it delivered. It would have been fun, for example, to take some undergrad religious studies textbooks and assess their explicit and implicit ideas about what religion is, then hold up Pagan trads against that. That might produce a 6,000-word paper, at a minimum. (Put it on the To Do list.)

Meanwhile, watch the Bulletin blog for more reflection on American Gods and religion and other new stuff on the academic study of. There is so much discussion about what “the discipline” is that contemporary Paganism’s challenge is its norms is just one of many. For a sampling, see this entry inspired by Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

A Curse in the Form of an Animal


In Romania, old-style witchcraft is thriving after the fall of the Communist government in 1989.  (Link here if the video does not load.) A fee of €500 for a curse — and it is tax-free!

Not Dead and the House Is Still Standing

william-f-schmalsle

Great-great-uncle Fred,
a dapper Old West sportin’ gent.

Sorry about the lack of content. Everything went topsy-turvy on the 17th and is just now returning to normal, or to a “new normal.”

I left home on the 11th for a trip to eastern North Dakota to go grouse hunting with an old friend who himself was facing heart surgery on the 24th. It’s a thousand-mile drive each way, but I have done it for seven of the last eight years. Lots of restful prairie driving (perfect for audiobooks!), and I can chose a route where the biggest city I go through is Pierre, South Dakota.

This year I tacked on a day and drove via Miles City, Montana, a place that I had never visited but where a number of my paternal grandmother’s relatives lived—her uncles and brothers.

I wanted to see sites associated with my great-great-uncle, whose résumé in the 1870s and 1880s apparently included civilian Army scout, buffalo hunter, saloon-keeper, occasional deputy sheriff, and landlord of and probably silent partner in a couple of  “boarding houses” for young ladies. My cousins and I are trying to sort it out. (He ended up peacefully retired in Pasadena and left my grandmother a nice inheritance from the money he made “in real estate.”) There is a street named after him, a minor street in a residential area.

nd-badlands

Entering North Dakota from Montana on I-94.

I bought a bottle of Montana whiskey to toast Uncle Fred.  Another day’s drive east brought me to a little town dominated by grain elevators, where my old friend G. fetched up about 14 years ago.

We had a couple of days together; then on Monday the 17th my phone woke me with an emergency call. My little rural fire department was being called (at 6:30 a.m.) to assist with a “100-acre grass fire.” The location was roughly west from my house, conditions were dry, and a strong west wind was blowing, I knew. My guts turned to water.

More calls followed. The fire was blowing up: 9,000 acres. 10,000 acres.1)4046 ha. I could not reach M. at first, but eventually she called (after I was already packed and on the road south) to say she was preparing to leave for a motel in a nearby town as soon as the sheriff’s deputies said she had to go right now. I did not try to reach anyone on the fire department, just texted the chief and told him that I was two days away but on the move. I told M. to pack my wildland fire gear: “Just grab everything yellow.”

What do you do magically in such a case? Something sprang spontaneously to my mind as I drove — a giant Smokey Bear, skycraper-size, standing with shovel at the ready at a key road junction.

That sounds sort of comic book-ish, but it works for me. When I learned something about ceremonial magic in my twenties, I realized that my first (and to that time, only) experience of “assuming the god form” was as a 9- or 10-year-old  wearing the Smokey Bear costume on the Forest Service float during parades in Rapid City, SD.

Smokey was created by a commercial artists, but what the heck, he is a demi-god by now. At least to me.

Magical work should be reinforced by material-plane work. The worst of the fire was over by the time I got home, but I still put in a day and a half on an engine crew, plus another day doing engine maintenance etc. at the fire house

The station also functioned as a disaster-assistance center, with various agencies setting up help centers there. In such cases, you are always overwhelmed with donated food. So I took a platter of two-day-old barbequed pork up to the wildlife rehabilitation center that I frequently mention on the other blog.

They have a couple of bear cubs that they are fattening ahead of an early-winter release. The BBQ was a welcome high-calorie treat.

“Thank you!” said the woman who runs it.

“Not me,” I said. “Thank Smokey.”

Notes   [ + ]

1. 4046 ha

Pentagram Pizza: Toppings Begone!

pentagrampizzaThe Roman Catholic Church in the United States reports a shortage of exorcists, says a British newspaper.

In lengthy interviews with The Telegraph, the two exorcists discuss how the increase in drug and pornography addiction, failure of the mental healthcare system and a rise in popularity of “pagan activities”, such as using a Ouija board to summon the dead, are among the factors contributing to the huge increase in demand for the Rite.

¶ The title says it: “Why It’s So Damn Difficult to Discuss Occult Topics in the Media.” Of course, if “occult” means hidden, then “media” means the opposite of hidden, and there could just be some tension there.

¶ “Grounding” or “earthing” is not just a magical exercise: it can actually heal your body when done with real earth. Science!

Got Ghosts with Your Historic House?

When I was handling the sale of my mother’s Arizona home after her death, the real estate agent and I were perched on the kitchen counters doing the paperwork, because the furniture had already been moved out.

Working through a long sale-listing questionnaire, I came to a question asking if the property were haunted. “You’re kidding!” I said.

“Oh no,” he said. “That’s Arizona law. You have to disclose if the house might be haunted. It’s based on a court case from some years back.”

I checked “No.”

But what if you are the buyer? You have found, perhaps, your perfect restoration project. “Everything is going smoothly until your electrician meets you at the top of the basement stairs and tells you you’re going to have to find another electrician. He’s not going down in the basement again. Ever.”

So writes M. Elwell Romancito in a recent issue of Enchanted Homes, a slick magazine of Taos, New Mexico-area real estate ads published by the Taos News. Also known as Melody Romancito, she is an artist, muscian, journalist, audio-video editor, ghost hunter and exorcist, which just goes to show that to live the bohemian life in a place like Taos, you need a few arrows in your quiver.

Her suggestions range from tidying tools and clearing remodeling trash (“This goes a long toward appeasing spirits who take to hiding tools.”) to keeping a journal of times, dates, and nature of each paranormal occurrance.

Antique furniture should also be regarded with suspicion: “Inquire about the history of an item before buying it.”

While “several locals have reported that bringing in Tibetan Buddhists for a house clearing . . . has been effective,” if things get tough, contact some other religious leader or “do a Google search for ‘Taos psychic medium.'”

I tried that and got 10,600 hits. Of course, a lot of them were actually in Santa Fe.

Folktales and Human Migration

An interesting article from Scientific American, in which the author breaks several folktales, like the origin of the contellation Ursa Major—the “Cosmic Hunt”—into memes and then treats them in a sort of genetic way, to see if they match up with ancient human migrations, to the extent that we understand those.

Carl Jung, the founding father of analytic psychology, believed that myths appear in similar forms in different cultures because they emerge from an area of the mind called the collective unconscious. “Myths are first and foremost psychic phenomena that reveal the nature of the soul,” Jung argued. But the dissemination of Cosmic Hunt stories around the world cannot be ex­­plained by a universal psychic structure. If that were the case, Cosmic Hunt stories would pop up everywhere. Instead they are nearly absent in Indonesia and New Guinea and very rare in Australia but present on both sides of the Bering Strait, which geologic and archaeological evidence indicates was above water between 28,000 and 13,000 B.C. The most credible working hypothesis is that Eurasian ancestors of the first Americans brought the family of myths with them.

Read it all (with graphics): “Scientists Trace Society’s Myths to Primordial Origins