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.

A Small Victory in the Struggle for the Capital P

I was contacted some time ago to write an article on contemporary Paganism for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, now in production. After the usual writerly procrastination, I cranked out my 8,000 words (or whatever it was) and sent it in.

Then, in April, the copyedited version arrived for my approval. No problems there — except every instance of the word “Pagan” had been lowercased, except where it began a sentence.

I was quietly furious. The campaign for the capital P is not going to be won in a day.

One thing caught my eye — the editor who had contacted me (not the copyeditor) had a Indian name, Krishnan P_______. So whether a devout Hindu or not, perhaps he would be receptive to an argument based on a sort of semantic parallel. Like this:

  • “Pagan,” like “Hindu,” was a term imposed by outsiders.
  • Like “Hindu,” it covers a variety of worship traditions and philosophies —  admittedly not quite so many. But every bit as old, if you apply it all the way back, which I do.
  • Finally, the people whom it describes have come to use it as a neutral or even positive descriptor of who they are.
  • And publishers and academic groups increasingly use the capital P in the interest of fairness as a parallel to capital-M Muslim and so on.

And to my delight, he replied, “Thanks for writing to me. As per your concern, we will retain the capitalization for the word ‘Pagan’ throughout the article.”

Some British academics have been slow to accept this eminently sensible approach. At least one scholar I know wants to treat “paganism” as a collection of practices that pre-date the Big Five religions but are also found within them.

For instance, in his system, a pilgrimage to a sacred site is “pagan” no matter who does it. So my cousin who is currently four days along the Camino de Santiago (I think he is in Pamplona tonight) is carrying out a “pagan practice.”1)I would love to walk it myself, and I am obviously not Christian, so I am not sure how I would categorize that! But I think that “Pagan” has more use as an umbrella for more than the new religious movements usually associated with it.  So onward to lexicological victory!

Notes   [ + ]

1. I would love to walk it myself, and I am obviously not Christian, so I am not sure how I would categorize that!

Not Ainu or Polynesian, Scientists Say of Kennewick Man

One reconstruction gave him a thick beard (Int. Business Times).

One reconstruction gave him a thick beard (Int. Business Times).

Kennewick Man, the roughly 9,000-year-old skeleton found twenty years in Washington state was the subject of a long court battle between physical anthropologists and archaeologists who wanted to study him and contemporary tribes who wanted to claim him under NAGPRA rules.

Suspiciously, the Corps of Engineers dumped rock and gravel all over the area where his skeleton washed out along the Columbia River, making it impossible to say if he was buried with anyone else.

Some scientists described the skull as “Caucasoid” — which is not the same as “Caucasian” in a racial sense, but which could indicate common ancestry with today’s Polynesians or perhaps the ancient Ainu people of Japan. That did not stop other people from claiming a European origin for him.

Current study says no:

The breakthrough in confirming the ancestry of the skeleton after years of research came with DNA testing, which enabled scientists to compare DNA in an ancient finger bone from Kennewick Man with saliva samples from Colville tribal members, where genetic similarities were confirmed.

Whoever he was, he lived hard, active life and might have gone down fighting.

Part of a spear had remained lodged in Kennewick’s right hip bone at a 77-degree angle, but, remarkably, the spear did not cause his death. The cause of his demise remains a mystery. What is known is that this athletic, rugged hunter suffered many physical traumas before finally expiring in his mid-to-late 30s. [Other estimates put him in his forties—CSC]

Now the skeleton goes to a coalition of local tribes who plan to rebury it near where it was found.

Trolls through Time

troll.jpg

Storybook troll by the Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen, c. 1900.

Translating the Chanson de Roland — the epic poem about Charlemagne’s campaign against the Muslims in Spain in 778 — for a Norse audience,1)In Norse, Karlamagnús saga. the Norse poet describes one Muslim emir thus: “The man was full of magic and sorcery and fraud and would be called a troll if he were to come up here to the northern part of the world” (33).

And you thought trolls lived under bridges? And how did we get from that to ugly-cute plastic dolls and Moomintroll?

“Troll” is an elusive category, but John Lindow does his best to sort it out historically and thematically in Trolls: An Unnatural History (160 pp.)

This short but well-researched book tells how troll in the old sagas overlapped with giant, witch, land-wight (landvaettir) and people — not just fierce warrirors but shape-shifters, Saami shamans, and even Greenland Inuit, whose lifeways seemed so unusual to the Norse settlers there (43).

One 14th-century saga describes trolls encountered in Helluland, usually taken to mean Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic (35). Were these indigenous trolls?

To “give someone to the trolls” meant to kill them.

The word’s origin is uncertain. It might have come from verbs meaning “to enchant” or “to tread” or “rush away,” with Lindow himself leaning towards an origin connected with magic.2)In the Norwegian translation of Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is a trollmannen (51). It was “an all-purpose word for supernatural beings” (51).

A troll transformation occurred in the 19th century with the rising interest in folklore-collecting. Still huge, trolls were depicted affectionately by a variety of Scandinavian artists.

Trolls (by that name) entered in the English-speaking world only in the 1850s, notably in George Webbe Dasent’s Popular Tales from the Norse, published in 1859, which familiarized Anglosphere children with the Three Billy Goats Gruff (100).

The movie Trollhunter (which is a lot of fun) invokes and tweaks all the old images — giants, bridges, goats, hostility to Christianity. In Lindow’s opinion, it is the best modern troll-flick. “Trolls have some way to go before they catch up with zombies, but they are certainly a presence in film and media” (122).

Notes   [ + ]

1. In Norse, Karlamagnús saga.
2. In the Norwegian translation of Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is a trollmannen (51).