“The World is Very Different from a Pagan Perspective”

How do you explain it them?

A couple of days I sat down with an interviewer who had read an old essay of mine, “The Hunter’s Eucharist,” also published as “The Nature of the Hunt.” (It  appeared along with works by writers more articulate than I in A Hunter’s Heart: Honest Essays on Blood Sport, edited by David Petersen, one of the best nature writers out there.

When I wrote it in the early 1990s, I was maybe more sure of how to talk about the universe than I am now. At least, that is what I ended telling the interviewer, giving him the old story about how the American anthropologist Irving Hallowell, after learning that in the Ojibwe language stones are grammatically animated (treated as alive), asked a tribal elder, “Are all stones alive.” The man thought a moment and replied, “Some are.”

(Or maybe they are experienced as alive some of the time, depending on many things—that is me talking, not Hallowell.)

This interviewer was all right—not capital-P Pagan, but someone who had thought about nature, hunting, and spirituality quite a bit. To be  honest, “spirituality” is not a term that I fully comprehend, but I have to use it here.

The more I live, the more complexity I sense in the seen and unseen universe. This makes it harder and harder to talk to monotheists, who think that we merely replace the True God with a set of inferior replacements but otherwise think and worship much as they do.

At the Pagan Square blog portal, Guz diZerega has started a series of posts called “Viewing the World through Pagan Eyes.” He puts the communication problem this way

Christian-derived views see the world as a collection of things initially created and ordered by God. Secularists accepting this distinction replace God with predictable laws. There is a deep distinction between human subjectivity, and the objective nature of everything else. Some secular scientists accept the dichotomy but reject consciousness as a fundamental property of reality, hoping to reduce all subjectivity to impersonal objective processes. The ‘illusion’ of mind is a side effect of determinism, and not an active part of reality.

A Pagan outlook implies what we call subjectivity and objectivity both exist ‘all the way down.’ People can be studied as if they were simply objects and there is an element of awareness in even the simplest phenomena, but reality includes both. This view is not unique to Pagans, some physicists share it, for example. But it is rarely treated seriously in many other sciences, particularly the social sciences. The social sciences usually incorporate the distinction between people and the rest of the world or, alternatively, seeks to understand us using the same ‘objective’ approaches used to understand all else.

I took the title of this post from Gus’s first post, and I am looking forward to reading them all. We need to realize how different we are.


Witches, Sea Captains, and Art — We Go Back to Salem

I am sipping this as I write.

Last November, during the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Boston, I made a quick trip to Salem, Mass., with some fellow Pagan studies scholars. It was only one afternoon—long enough to visit some of the witchy shops, a magickal temple, the Charter Street cemetery, and a few other sites.

No time for the maritime history or the highly regarded Peabody-Essex Museum or even all of the historic sites connected with the witch trials or other cultural history, such as the House of the Seven Gables.

So back I go in two weeks, and M. is going with me — a trip celebrating a wedding anniversary that ends in zero. We have lots of Amtrak reward points to spend, and it’s too early for gardening here. A rented apartment awaits us. Granted, winter is hanging on grimly in New England, but we will take our chances.

Our guidebook is J. W. Ocker’s recent A Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts.

We have been preparing ourselves with a series of movies — more on that soon — and I actually read all of The House of the Seven Gables, with more of Hawthorne waiting on the bedside table, to put myself in a mood of dark Romanticism and decay.

Like Ocker, I wonder, “Why Salem did attract today’s witches? Why in the 1970s?” He has some ideas, which I will share later.

So consider this to be the first of a series of travel-related posts that will appear between now and Beltane, more or less.

A personal note: Despite her French surname, M. on her father’s side is New England Yankee all the way down. According to family tradition, the name came from some French Huguenot (Protestant Christian) who fled across the Channel in the 17th or early 18th century to escape Catholic persecution, the family transforming gradually into English Puritans.

Although they moved on to northeastern Vermont, they presumably came through Massachusetts. “So,” I tell her, “you might pass by an ancestor’s grave. Perhaps even one of the witch-hunters. . .”

And at that point she starts shouting at me.

What can I say? The Cliftons were Virginians who probably spent their Sundays sipping rum and betting on cockfights, not listening to two-hour sermons and hanging so-called witches.

On the other hand, she is willing to make the trip!

A Fire at the Castle

Engine 2, our older brush truck.

It is 5:39 a.m., and the computer-generated voice on the telephone is saying, “We need a response to Bishop’s Castle — report of a structure fire.”

I pull on my jeans and scamper down to the garage. “Structure fire”—that means bunker gear, and so on go the heavy rubber boats, bulky pants with their suspenders, helmet, and the rest.1)Since I live some distance from the fire station, I keep three sets of protective gear at home: bunker gear, lighter “interface gear,” and wildland gear — the Nomex yellow-and-green combination you see on every forest fire. The radio is crackling as the other volunteer firefighters check in with the sheriff’s dispatcher.

Ten minutes later I am behind the wheel of the second engine leaving the station, red and blue lights flickering in the darkness.2)Normally the minimum is two firefighters per engine, but someone else will be meeting me on-scene. No one else is on the road. The lights bounce off reflective road signs, rocks, and snow — it’s my own private rave, minus the music.

The castle, for so it is, perches at the far edge of our 110-square-mile service area, which is mostly forested mountains. In a slow, top-heavy vehicle, it is at least a 40-minute drive, up a canyon, over one divide, down the other side (watch your speed on the switchbacks!), up over another, down again, and up a long pull to the destination ridge.

Firefighters confer in front of the castle, which is untouched.

On the scene, I see that the hand-built stone castle is untouched, as is its gatehouse (complete with portcullis.). The fire has destroyed a two-story stone-and-wood house built in the early 1960s and now used mainly as a gift shop (lots of swords) as well as a small adjacent cabin.

The first department there had come a shorter distance, maybe 20 miles (all uphill), but now the fire is knocked down and they are out of water.3)No hydrants in the woods. They are outside their service district, but have come under the principle of “mutual aid.” Nevertheless, they arrived too late to do more than spray the ruins.4)Visit any rural fire department, and you will hear someone say, “We never lost a foundation yet.”

So we take over, supplied by a county Road & Bridge Dept. water truck — all the messy work of moving debris to extinguish fire underneath or inside it, knocking down parts of the porch roof that were still actively on fire, spraying down some fir trees that were slightly scorched, doing what we had to do.

Metalwork on the towers shows Jim Bishop’s artistry.

And Then Things Got Mythic

Bishop’s Castle (or Bishop Castle) has nothing to do with warlike prelates. It’s more like a  Renn Faire setting without a fair. (That happens up north, closer to the Denver-plex.)

It is the work of one man, Jim Bishop, a Pueblo maker of ornamental ironwork, who has worked on it off and for 40 years. (You can read the history here.)

The style is not medieval-defensive but romantic fantasy, all arches and soaring towers, complete with a giant dragon’s head on top.

Through the death of a son in a tree-felling accident in the late 1980s, through serious illness suffered by both him and his wife, Phoebe, through disputes with all levels of government, he has persisted.

People love it. They love Jim’s story with its whiff of outlawry. They like the by-donation admission too. They shoot bazillions of photographs and put them online. They come from out of state to be married there. They buy swords and daggers in the gift shop — or did until Wednesday.

I posted some photos on the fire department’s Facebook page, and they got hundreds of comments, nearly 1,500 shares, and allegedly reached more than 147,000 readers. People love the castle.

Even in a democracy, there is something about a castle. If you crave a “safe space,” there it is. Is it the archetypal family home, where the parents are the benevolent monarchs?

Jim Bishop is a little rough around the edges. Just search “YouTube for “Jim Bishop + rant.

I walk past one of the extra buckets for his skid loader, on which was painted, “YOUR SCUMBAG COUNTY” — and then the rest of the inscription was painted over in a different color. Someone trying to protect his reputation?

A sheet of plywood at the gatehouse was daubed with a rant that began, “Fire bans violate human rights!”5)Or words to that effect. The sheriff had imposed one a few days earlier, when we were having one Red Flag Warning after another. Had the fire happened five days earlier, before the snow, it might have jumped the highway and gone who knows where.

As we work, the undersheriff and a deputy are looking around. The deputy says that the people who reported the fire were “hinky.”6)Also, he said they made a cell phone video of the fire before driving off to find a cell phone signal. Twenty-first century priorities!

He is intrigued by a set of car keys lying on an old generator, and points out a set of tracks that go up to a propane grill behind the castle, walked around, and then came back down. He thinks someone might still be in the area. “Watch your six,” he advises.

That was comforting. And then we do hear two far-off rifle shots, and it is not hunting season.

But despite the deputy’s efforts to create a scenario where the fire was started by some sort of “transients” warming themselves at a different propane grill on the gift-shop porch, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation arson team that came later gave their opinion thus: “Probably electrical.”

I don’t know how this fits with the romantic-fantasy castle image, but there is something “hinky” about that area. Maybe it needs a feng-shui treatment. Maybe it’s just Jim Bishop’s sometimes-chaotic energy.7)In an alternative reality, I think he could be one of those “sovereign citizen” types who dies in a shoot-out with federal marshals.

Even though visitors park right on the highway in plain sight, every summer there are reports of car break-ins. Since no one lives nearby year-around, the criminals must be driving up there themselves and parking there too. Yet they are never caught.

That stretch of highway seems to attract every cut-rate Bonnie and Clyde who want to “head for the mountains” — and it eats motorcycles —  but those are other stories.

I am still learning the energies of these mountains.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Since I live some distance from the fire station, I keep three sets of protective gear at home: bunker gear, lighter “interface gear,” and wildland gear — the Nomex yellow-and-green combination you see on every forest fire.
2. Normally the minimum is two firefighters per engine, but someone else will be meeting me on-scene.
3. No hydrants in the woods.
4. Visit any rural fire department, and you will hear someone say, “We never lost a foundation yet.”
5. Or words to that effect.
6. Also, he said they made a cell phone video of the fire before driving off to find a cell phone signal. Twenty-first century priorities!
7. In an alternative reality, I think he could be one of those “sovereign citizen” types who dies in a shoot-out with federal marshals.

Some Pagan-ish Advice, Offered as “Brutal Truths”

You know the most-quoted verse from Hávamál:

Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But the good name never dies
Of one who has done well

. . . there is a lot more, of course.

After you read #7 in this list, you will think of it — as someone in the comments did. But were the Norse poet writing today, he might add a line:

Bandy no speech with a bad man:
Often the better is beaten
In a word fight by the worse.
Don’t read the comments.


Does Anyone “Own” the Vikings? The NY Times Wants to Know

Jasper Juinen for The New York Times

Some years ago — the late 1990s? — I had a Swedish freshman student in one of my classes. Looking over his shoulder as he was typing at his computer station, I noticed that he had a silver Mjöllnir (Thor’s hammer) pendant on a thin chain around his neck.

Naturally, I wondered if he was following Norse religion or just proud of his heritage. I complimented him on the pendant, and he told me that he was interested in the Viking Age.

“But if I wear this at home,” he said, “they call me a Nazi.”

I told him that I did not think he had to worry about that in Pueblo, Colorado.

Now here comes the New York Times plodding down the Nazi/Heathen trail — in Sweden.

Amid a boom in Viking-related TV shows and films — and a corresponding surge in Viking-inspired tourism and advertising campaigns — there is increasing political tension and social unease over the use of various runes, gods and rituals from the Viking era.

Watch a group of Swedish followers of the old religion deal with the usual tired questions: “Who Owns the Vikings? Pagans, Neo-Nazis and Advertisers Tussle Over Symbols.”

Here is another way of approaching such reportage from a leading establishment media voice. Maybe it’s not about “Nazis” at all, except that is the insult of the moment, a way to dismay something disturbing to the materialist world view. These elites are good at dismissing Christianity — it is all “fundamentalist crazies,” “deplorables,” and people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”

Religion is dangerous. The people in power have always realized this. Either they must tame it — make it all about how King Zork enjoys the Will of Heaven —or keep a heavy, cast iron lid on it.

The trouble with religious people is that they are not always loyal enough — to the king, to the government, to the Party, to the corporation.

Nowadays Paganism(s) is growing. You can’t call the Pagans “deplorables” or “bitter clingers” or “fundamentalist crazies.” Those insults just don’t fit.

But you can call (some of) them “Nazis” or “racists” as a way of marginalizing them, a way of making it clear that no bien pensant, “woke” or “progressive” person would want to have anything to do with that experience that they are offering.

As a commentator on law professor Ann Althouse’s blog wrote, “[Christianity, in this case] is simply the enemy culture. It has to be disparaged and reduced in social status.

Or when they say that your Olympic ski sweaters “raise alarms” about neo-Nazis, that’s a warning shot too.

A New Look — by Happenstance

About two days ago, my WordPress theme started displaying wrong — and I checked it in three different browsers.

The main text area was fine, but the sidebar background was dark, making the links unreadable unless you moused over them. My “White on Black” Firefox add-on fixed it,but not everyone has that. (LIght-on-dark text is an abomination online for more than a line or three.)

So I found a new theme that was somewhat similar to the old. My main criteria were that the links displayed compactly and likewise block quotations in the posts. And the footnotes — I need to have footnotes.

The photo, in case you wondered, shows an “upslope” cloud bank (cool, moist air) trying to push up the canyon of the Arkansas River in southern Colorado. The view is from the hamlet of Hillside, Colo. The cold air moving from right to left.

Can You Put Your Paganism in the Street?

Union Avenue in Pueblo, Colorado — January 2018. Banner at left marks the Hanging Tree Cafe, where you will find me sometimes.

Late last year, I read this in the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper: “Pueblo Church Walks and Prays over Every Walkable Street in the City.”

About a year ago, the Rev. Jim Murray had a vision. In that vision, members of his church, the First Church of the Nazarene, 84 Stanford Ave., would walk every walkable street in Pueblo and pray over the city.

It was a daunting challenge. The maps of Pueblo listed more than 1,200 streets covering more than 340 miles. When you double that by walking down both sides of each street to reach every home or business or school, the distance is nearly 800 miles.

“In any political economy of the sacred, therefore, conflicts over space are inevitable” — David Chidester. (Photo: Muslims in Milan’s central square, 2009).

It put me in mind of an essay by religion scholar David Chidester called “Mapping the Sacred” in which he writes, “Of course, religion inevitably spills out of the privatized enclaves of homes, churches, mosques, temples, or synagogues to assert broader claims on urban space, taking to the streets, so to speak, to negotiate religious presence, position, or power in the city.1)David Chidester, Wild Religion: Tracking the Sacred in South Africa (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2012), 35.  As an aside: Chidester is writing about Cape Town, which is currently in the middle of ecological crisis — running out of water — due to a combination of drought and growing population. Who is next? Phoenix? Albuquerque?

A French scholar suggests that such religious demonstrations in the polis are a sign of globalization:2)Lionel Obadia, “Urban Pareidolias: Fleeting but Hypermodern Signs of the Sacred?” Bulletin for the Study of Religion 47, no. 1 [in press].

Similarly, modernity has been associated with the decline and the privatization of religion, whilst globalization has meant the return of religion in social arenas and in public spaces. Consequently, the world is a new (social and political) theater for religious dynamics. The spatial expansion of religions is remarkable in urban and public spaces, perhaps the more visible site of the “return of religion” in Europe and globally—prayers and processions in the streets of secular global cities, the semiotics of religious clothes (Muslim hidjab, Buddhist robe, Jewish kippah) and, of course, the problem of religious buildings in Europe are evidences of such a reinjection of religion in the spatial and sociological heart of so-called “secular” modernity. Cities are, in this perspective, very important and strategic sites for the observation of the mutations of religion.

Performing your religion in the polis is nothing new, but performing it in a way to challenge groups is new again, you might say. (I think there was some of it in the 4th-century Roman Empire, for instance.) Just here in Colorado, former megachurch pastor Ted Haggard infected his congregation with the idea that downtown Colorado Springs needed spiritual cleansing.

I admire those Greeks who held a Dionysian procession in Athens four years ago (Do they still do it?). Of course, they get to play the heritage card: “This is what our ancestors used to do, right here.”

So you don’t have musicians and followers enough to stage a public procession, so what to you do. Maybe instead of imposing your sacred meanings on the polis, you go looking for them instead. Not “I put Hermes here!” but “Where does Hermes show up?”

That is what one of my favorite Pagan writers, Sarah Kate Istra Winter (a/k/a Dver) advocates in three short books, built up upon her blog, A Forest Door. (Look in the “Pagan Bloggers” sidebar — she has stopped updating it, but I keep it there for the archive.)

The books are Between the Worlds: Notes from the Threshold, Dwelling on the Threshold: Reflections of a Spirit-Worker and Devotional Polytheist, and the one I need to get, The City Is a Labyrinth: A Walking Guide for Urban Animists.

Blogging in or near The Capitol, Hecate Demeter notes,

Speaking of being fully Pagan in urban settings, if you can possibly get your hands on Sarah Kate Istra Winter’s new little book entitled The City is a Labyrinth:  A Walking Guide for Urban Animists, please do so.  It is full of simple, practical, doable ways to come into relationship with an urban landscape.

And none of them involve wagging your butt at Allah.

Notes   [ + ]

1. David Chidester, Wild Religion: Tracking the Sacred in South Africa (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2012), 35.  As an aside: Chidester is writing about Cape Town, which is currently in the middle of ecological crisis — running out of water — due to a combination of drought and growing population. Who is next? Phoenix? Albuquerque?
2. Lionel Obadia, “Urban Pareidolias: Fleeting but Hypermodern Signs of the Sacred?” Bulletin for the Study of Religion 47, no. 1 [in press].

“Come Out and Fight Me for My Throne . . . “


. . . says Janet Farrar melodramatically in this 1977 broadcast from the Irish national network Raidió Teilifís Éireann.

Author and screenwriter Stewart Farrar and his wife Janet, both from London in England, met through witchcraft and founded their own coven. In 1976 the couple moved to Ireland, accompanied by Janet’s father Ronald Owen, and they now live in the townland of Rockspring in Ferns, County Wexford. On the whole they have been warmly welcomed to the area by Catholics and Protestants alike.

Witchcraft is growing in Ireland and Janet, the Witch Queen of Ireland, challenges usurpers to come out and fight her for her throne. Until then, Janet is a natural clairvoyant and both she and Stewart can help people who have had piseogs worked against them. She once wished ill on a man and when she told him to be quiet, he lost his voice for 48 hours.

I was at that house a year or two later (and borrowed that typewriter), and I don’t remember the theramin music everywhere outdoors, so the producers must have added because they, like the Brits, just love the TV trope of the scary countryside. With witches.

The Pomegranate 19, no. 2 Now Published Online

Click here for the Table of Contents. As usual book reviews are free downloads.


The Image of Paganism in British Romanticism
Pavel Horák

Special Section: Paganism and Politics

Paganism and Politics: A View from Central-Eastern Europe
Michael F. Strmiska

Pagan Terror: The Role of Pagan Ideology in Church Burnings and the 1990s Norwegian Black Metal Subculture
Miroslav Vrzal

Women of Power: The Image of the Witch and Feminist Movements in Poland
Adam Anczyk, Joanna Malita-Król

Religious, Socio-cultural and Political Worldviews of Contemporary Pagans in the Czech Republic
Matouš Vencálek

Field Report

New Age Movements, Occultism, and Spiritualism Research Library: The Making of a Pagan Archive
Guy Frost

Book Reviews

Stefanie von Schnurbein, Norse Revival: Transformations of Germanic Paganism (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 418 pp., $140 (cloth), $25 (paper), Open Access (ebook).
Jefferson F. Calico

Gerd van Riel, Plato’s Gods (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2013); vii and 137 pp.; $153.00 (cloth), $50.95 (paper), $45.86 (ebook).
Carole M. Cusack

Gregory E. Munson, Todd W. Bostwick, and Tony Hull, eds., Astronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest: Revisited. Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, Anthropological Papers 9 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2014), 163 pp., $30 pap
John McHugh

Jonathan Allen, ed., Lost Envoy: The Tarot Deck of Austin Osman Spare (London: Strange Attractor Press, 2016), 336 pp, £35 (cloth).
Carole M. Cusack

Now We Are Fifteen

This blog turns fifteen today, which means that it is an adolescent who thinks that it knows more than it does. Sounds about right.

Hey, here’s an idea. Check out the archives — see the button in the right-hand column.

By the Banks of Hardscrabble Creek

Since it has been several years since I have published any of the print versions of “Letter from Hardscrabble Creek,” I am creating this blog to talk about the process and progress of writing and also to comment on what I think are the best new books on contemporary Paganism and nature-based spirituality.

I will also be posting updates on my work in progress, a study of the Pagan revival in America, which has the working title of HER HIDDEN CHILDREN and which will be published by AltaMira Press.