Thoughts after a Funeral

A member of my little rural volunteer fire department died last week at the age of 47.1)It was not a line-of-duty death; other causes So the chief, the treasurer, and I put on our rarely worn dress uniforms for the funeral — M. came too — and we went off to a little rectangular funeral chapel in a nearby town for the “celebration of life.”

The chief had quickly put together a quickie memorial display of an American flag in one of those triangular presentation boxes plus the man’s structural-fire helmet, which went onto the table with the urn and some other items, flanked by flowers and two easels holding collages of photographs. Pretty standard stuff these days.

But along with that, you had people sitting in rows and whispering too each other. The building was too hot (aren’t they always?). The music was canned vaguely spiritual pop—the only lively tune was “Spirit in the Sky” with its hard-driving opening chords — from way back in 1969.

The rent-a-cleric gave a [put deceased’s names here] eulogy, tripping over the fact that while the man’s legal first name was “Larry,” most people there knew him as “Scott” or “Scotty.” (His business cards read “Larry ‘Scott’ Lastname.”)

When the widow rose to speak — a tall, lanky woman clinging to the lectern for support, wracked by sobs — Scott’s mother rose and started waving her arms — the funeral director rushed up from the back of the chapel and led her away. She was not overcome by sadness, oh no, she apparently hates this woman, who was her son’s second wife.

The older woman came by the fire station two days later, apparently angling to see if any of her son’s personal items were there (they were not). She said she was “not allowed” to go up to his house, which is up on a ridge further on up the road. After she left, we looked at each other, and the words “mother-in-law from hell” were heard.

I ask that if I have a memorial service some day, there will be no recorded music. I think of these quasi-Protestant funeral-home services I have attended, where the rent-a-cleric sits on a bench gazing into the middle distance while some ghastly piece of “praise music” plays on cheap speakers.

If I cannot have live music — a harper playing “O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music” would be good — then just go straight to the fun part: “The evil bastard is dead — drink up!”  Fire a volley to scare away ghosts. Please don’t sacrifice my dog(s). Then go home.

Pagans, we need to do better than what I sat through last Tuesday. I know that some people are doing it.

Notes   [ + ]

1. It was not a line-of-duty death; other causes

Why I Am Not at the Heartland Festival.

Amtrack's Southwest Chief in southern Colorado. By Steve Wilson - Flickr (Wikimedia Commons)

Amtrack’s Southwest Chief in southern Colorado. By Steve Wilson – Flickr (Wikimedia Commons)

All day I had been tracking the progress of the eastbound Southwest Chief, the Amtrak train between Chicago and Los Angeles. It was slightly late out of Gallup, N.M., but on time into Albuquerque.

Then something happened to slow it between Lamy Junction and Las Vegas, New Mexico. The estimated time of arrival at my station (La Junta, Colo.) kept sliding back.

Just as well.

With the train fifteen minutes out from the station, my phone rang with a Kansas City number that I did not recognize, but I ended up talking with Sean, one of the Heartland Pagan Festival organizers.

I was supposed to give two talks there this weekend: one on American nature religion and one on my flying ointment research.

Things were not good: a dam had overflowed, the access road to Camp Gaea was blocked, and the person who was to pick me up in Lawrence, Kan., tomorrow morning (Friday, May 27) was trapped (along with everyone else) at the festival site.

It was questionable if I could even get there tomorrow. He spoke of reimbursing me for a hotel room. Would I even be able to do the scheduled Saturday presentation?

It’s not that I dislike Lawrence — it’s an interesting town — but did I want to ride all night just to go there and then, perhaps, stay a night in a hotel and then come back again, if I could get my ticket changed?

And what about all the people who paid for the weekend, were they getting in? There was a strong vibe of chaos and confusion, and I did not envy the organizers one bit.

Meanwhile the train was getting closer. “Maybe I had better abort this mission,” I said.

As I turned onto the highway home, the silver cars of the Southwest Chief were rolling beside me. I was going west, and they were going east.

So here I am, after two hours’ drive back home. After having sweated numerous bullets trying to put two talks together, packed, gotten everything organized (notes, handouts).

At least some of the work will transfer to other projects, an article and a book.

Normal for Glastonbury, Normal for Boulder

I love snarky local blogs. Unfortunately, the one for my little mountain county seems mostly devoted these days to attacking one county commissioner candidate, so I will spare you that.

But thanks to a Facebook friend, I was introduced to Normal for Glastonbury, which contains such nuggets as these about the most esoteric town in England, contributed by its readers:

Lisa: ‘Get off my fucking leyline!’ a hedge monkey once shouted at the custodian of the White Spring.

Sophie: “Yesterday, whilst on the top floor of the bus returning to Glastonbury from Bristol I overheard two young men, talking excitedly about visiting Glastonbury for the first time. One French guy explained that he had a calling to go to Glastonbury because people there believe in dragons, as he did himself and in fact he always travels with his dragon. When the other man asked where his dragon was the French man explained that his dragon was riding on the roof of the bus.”

Vijay ” I have a boyfriend in the seventh dimension”

Sam: “I was stood outside St Dunstan’s house on the pavement. Woman walks up and, looking concerned asks “Can you tell me where something normal is?”. I paused and asked whatever did she mean ‘normal’? She said “Something like .. well – an Italian restaurant”. I pointed across the street to point out we had (at that time) two – there and there. She looked relieved, thanked me and walk away. It left me wondering .. why is an Italian restaurant in Glastonbury ‘normal’ and what had led to her concern?”

That comment about getting off the ley line1)Is ley line one word or two? reminded me of another blog, one devoted to conversations overheard in the too-hip university city of Boulder, Colorado, once famous for its population of Buddhist converts.2)Sedona, Arizona might be a better parallel for Glastonbury, however. (They’re still there, but Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche is long gone.) Mirroring a more hipster/New Agey-vibe, it’s called Stay Out of My Namaste Space.

Some samples:

“I do yoga at the Y. They do a poor people’s scholarship which is great ‘cause I look poor on paper.”

“I was thinking about it today and I haven’t been in Europe in 2 whole years.”

“The Universe has blessed me with the opportunity to be unconnected from my smartphone.”

“I swear to God, I was the only person on this earth who thought Iceland was cool before everyone else did. I’ve literally been obsessing over Iceland for twenty years.”

“We ended up naming him Jeffrey. I wanted to name him Stannis but my psychic didn’t think that was a good idea.”

Who’s delivering the snark in your town?

Notes   [ + ]

1. Is ley line one word or two?
2. Sedona, Arizona might be a better parallel for Glastonbury, however.

Being “Nones” in a Pagan Society?

Sacrificial pine tree of Lalli in Tartu county - photo by Pille Porila

Sacrificial pine tree of Lalli in Tartu county – photo by Pille Porila

In Estonia, as with many Eastern European countries, the native Pagan religion is entertwined with national pride. Conquerers from the medieval Teutonic Knights to the Soviet Union have tried to supress it.

According to this writer, many—perhaps a majority—of Estonians are spiritual-but-not-religious in a Pagan sort of way:

Taaraism [native Paganism] went against the ways of Christianity and focused more upon the belief of nature. Because of the disbelief in Christianity, Estonians maintained a traditional culture of neo-Paganism that has continued to affect Estonian culture, beliefs and traditions to this day.

What I think might be happening can be explained by the good old 80-20 rule. Even if there is a “traditional culture of neo-Paganism” (Isn’t that a clash of adjectives?), at most only about 20 percent of  people really care about the daily business of religion, while the rest, to use an old phrase, mainly want it when they are “hatched, matched, and dispatched” — and for festivals.

Despite Estonia’s well-maintained churches and other medieval tourist attractions, Estonia is considered to be one of the least religious countries in the world, with 78% of Estonians saying they do not use religion as part of their daily lives, according to the 2006-2011 Gallup polls.

This is the normal condition of humanity, when you leave people to their own devices and do not demand that they line up in neat rows every seven days (on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday) and say their prayers.

More from the article:

Those who had hoped Taaraism to become Estonia’s national religion during the first independence period in 1918-1940, saw their prospective success squashed by the Soviet occupation, as the atheistic and collective Soviet Union didn’t take any religion kindly, let alone a stand-alone national one, which would give too many independent ideas and thoughts.

Today, the population of Taara or Maausk followers is extremely small. However, according to the 2000 census, only 29% of the total Estonian population is at all religious, but in 2005, the Eurobarometer poll found that 54% believed in some spirit or external life force.

Being an “Oxbridge Scholar”

Yesterday’s mail brought my contributor’s copy of The Cambridge Handbook of Western Mysticism and Esotericism, to which I contributed an article on contemporary Paganism.

There ought to be a long German compound word for “fear of looking at something you wrote several years ago.”

The back cover of this hefty (2.5 lbs.; 958 g.) volume has the usual blurbs, such as this one from Jeffrey Kripal, whose work I admire: “[Editor] Glenn Magee has brought together a dream team of scholars . . . ”

Then, of course, the voice of doubt: “He didn’t mean you.” But I will take the reflected glory of some of the big names and rising stars in the field, people like Antoine Favre, Joscelyn Godwin, Olav Hammer, Wouter Hanegraaff, Egil Asprem, Hereward Tilton, Hugh Urban, Kocku von Stuckrad, Cathy Gutierrez, Lee Irwin, and many others.

Online, you can read the table of contents, front matter, and index.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, I mentioned earlier my struggle to have Paganism capitalized in my entry on same for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion.

Some of its entries on are online at that link (not mine as yet). It is a religion nerd’s paradise. Right now the featured online article is “Festivals in Ancient Greece and Rome” by Fritz Graf. (In the entries I have looked at, no one else fought for the capital P.)

So it hit me that although I have yet to set foot at either of the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge, I have — in a small way — been published by both of their university presses. Sitting here in my little house in the pines, that is an odd and interesting thought.

Western Polytheists Have a Long Way to Go


For example, at our funerals, where are the dragon dancers? The all-female marching bands? The strippers?

“I want it to be boistrous. My father liked this kind of atmosphere.”

These Taiwanese make a New Orleans funeral look positively Lutheran.

And it’s much the same in mainland China, where the spicy-funeral custom is drawing the attention of the ever-vigilant government.

Take the outdoor funeral for an 86-year-old man surnamed Huang in central China’s Henan province in December 2012. A woman in a short, white skirt and halter top pulls a mourner on stage and begins to undress him, while periodically peeling off a piece of her own clothing.

Sex and death, baby. Keep turning the wheel.

It’s Because Texans Make Good Witches

Yes, “Wicca Grows in Austin“! And beyond!

Californians may recognize a familiar name in this Austin group too.

The headline was a youthful pronouncement of mine, because it seemed that if you peeled off the Baptist conditioning, Texans were craz-eee. (Catholics? Maybe so, maybe no.)

Celebrating Spring, Red Rocks, and Wine

Bennett Price

Bennett Price, founder of DeBeque Canyon winery in Palisade, Colo,, samples a cask with a wine thief.

I look outside today and see a white landscape, with light snow falling and a couple of hungry humingbirds huddled on the sugar-water feeder like barflies staring into their whiskey glasses.

Yes, it’s a typical May Day in the Colorado foothills. Is any surprise that Colorado’s biggest public Beltane festival does not occur until the 19th–22nd of May? They tried at first to do it on the “correct” date, but they learned their lesson.

Next weekend is the 76th Music and Blossom Festival in the southern Colorado town of Cañon City, not too far from me. Everyone knows, as a friend said last week, that “Blossom Weekend will be either snowing or a hundred degrees.” He forgot to mention the time in the 1990s when a hailstorm hit the parade.

But attending would be a way to “let the polis support your Paganism,” a theme that I have played with here and here this year.

So I will back up to the spring equinox, whose theme is usually “Let’s thaw out a little before the snow returns.” Some years that means a run to the desert, such as Canyonlands National Park. This year, it was Colorado National Monument. Red rock and sunshine, that’s the thing. Yay, Wingate Formation!

And wine. The vineyards were leafing, barely, whenM. and I dropped in at a couple of favorite Western Slope wineries in early April, of which our most favorite is DeBeque Canyon. (Yes, like the organizers of Beltania, we postponed the date a little.)

The trend today is for wineries to become venues. I think of one winery in Sonoma that I visited as a hitchhiking college student in the 1970s, on my way from Portland to San Francisco. I remembered it as a collection of sheds and little barefoot girls in cotton dresses running in the dust — my friend and I bought a jug of “Dago red” and took it up to the ruined hot springs that Lake Sonoma later drowned.

I returned to the same winery in 2007. Unrecognizable. There was an art gallery, meeting, space, an elegant tasting room that looked like a hotel bar . . . all glassed-in and air-conditioned. Other wineries compete with gardens and fountains and views — that is happening in Colorado too.

Not at DeBeque Canyon, not yet. You bump over the railroad tracks in Palisade to a collection of industrial metal buildings. There is Bennett Price, the owner, behind a simple counter pouring excellent wines for tasting, and telling stories of the industry’s beginnings in the 1970s. He seems to know everyone in the trade from Denver to San Francisco.

Slightly buzzed, we cross the parking lot in the strong spring sun, arms full of bottles. Yes, spring will be returning even to our foothills home. But first the spring snows will arrive to saturate the land.

More Links — Hand-Forged Ones At That

Utility seax from Fay’s Forge

• At Fay’s Forge you may buy “knives, swords, and do castings from the Celtic, migration, Anglo Saxon, and Norse cultures.” Support your local shieldmaiden.

Probably it would be more accurate to say that the planned Black Mass terrifies some Christians in Oklahoma. And before you dump on Oklahoma, remember that Harvard University backed down from a similar proposal!

• I have ordered this book: Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.

With Daesh slaughtering and enslaving Yezidis and Mandeans, etc., “disappearing” may not be an exaggeration. As a long review in The Revealer asks,

Will the funeral pyres of the Zoroastrians still alight the dusks of Iran and India? Will the Copts still maintain the well where Mary and Joseph quenched Jesus’ thirst upon the flight into Egypt? Will the Samaritans still smear the blood of the lamb upon their lintels as their ancestors in bondage did? Will the wooden idols of the Kalasha look out at the unforgiving and cragged landscape of the Kush? What of the Yazidis who believe that God is so benevolent that even the devil can be saved? Or the Mandaeans who whisper secrets in the language of the Magi and the Chaldean wizards?

“It’s Only a Tree. It Can’t Hurt You!”

Plus “You’ve been watching too much television” and other undying lines from a “teens in peril” screenplay.

So who is  the writer? That well-known Wiccan author Stewart Farrar (1916–2000), slipping a little bit of a Craft-y message into this 1975 episode of a British show called Shadows. (A tip of the pointy hat to Veles at Adventures in Witchery for leading me to it.)

From the 1950s to the late 1970s, when he turned more toward writing purely Wiccan books in collaboration with his wife Janet, Stewart Farrar put his hand to everything: occult thrillers, magazine journalism, television screenplays — even a pseudononymous bodice-ripper romance, just to see if he could do it. His novel The Sword of Orley remains one of my favorite examples of how reincarnational memories ought to be, if only life were more like books.

I got to know Stewart around 1977, and at some point suggested to him that Dion Fortune’s book of short stores about an English magus, The Secrets of Doctor Taverner, ought to transfer well to “the box,” as he called it.

He went so far as to investigate who held the copyright — which was her esoteric order, The Fraternity of the Inner Light, and its directors apparently had no interest in licensing a television adaptation.

A pity — they would have made a perfect 1970s TV show, when occult topics were in vogue.