Quick Review: Sex, War, and the Tarot

That is the subtitle I mentally add to Alan Richardson’s novel The Lightbearer.

It starts with the landing of Allied paratroopers in Normandy just after midnight on June 6, 1944, a meticulously planned operation that ended up scrambled by Murphy’s Law.

In the novel, a transport aircraft carrying some of the pathfinders goes astray (as some did) causing one Private Michael Horsett to land far off-target. Horsett is taken in by a group of French Thelemite magicians — all female.

Complications ensue. The Thelemites have their own agenda. Local Resistance fighters have another agenda. Private Horsett, new to war, wants to prove himself as a soldier. And there is a Tarot puzzle built into the text. It is not easy to combine occultism with a thriller plot, but Richardson pulls it off.1)Military historians may note some oddities. For example, Wehrmacht helmets (as with other armies) came in only one size, with the adjustment in the harness.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Military historians may note some oddities. For example, Wehrmacht helmets (as with other armies) came in only one size, with the adjustment in the harness.

An Amber Alert from 1284 CE

The ratcatcher and the rats, part of a civic pageant in Hamelin today.

“Amber alert” defined for readers outside the USA.

In five days it will be the 733rd anniversary of the most famous missing children case in Western Europe. What happened to the children of Hamelin, a town (current population about 57,000) in what is today the German state of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen)?

A June 2010 article in the Fortean Times by Maria Cuervo summarized various possible explanations; Cuervo reprints it in a more readable format on her blog here.

Years ago I read a science-fiction story of explorers coming to another planet and finding a human community who built their houses in a vaguely medieval German style. Yes, they were the descendants of the children led away by the ratcatcher, through some kind of interdimensional portal. If you know the author and title, post them in the comments.

What Is Wrong with Large-Scale Ritual?

Maypole procession at Colorado’s Beltania festival, 2011. (Photo by Robin Vinehall.)

When it comes to large-scale ritual, the traditional Wiccan circle does not scale up well. It was made for a small-group mystery religion, where twelve or thirteen people really is the maximum.1)OK, maybe up to twenty or so, but that is more than enough, especially if they are skyclad and all waving athames.

That Wiccan circle, as far as I can tell, was based on the magic circle of the ceremonial magician, designed to hold one, maybe two, possibly three individuals—but usually just one. And as many teachers will tell you, the magician’s circle was supposed to give the Bad Stuff out, whereas the Witches’ circle is supposed to keep the Good Stuff in.

But like a balloon that can be inflated only so far before it pops, the magic circle seems to lose cohesion when it grows too big. Its fabric tears, and, for all I know, the Good Stuff leaks out.

It may still worth with large groups as a way for a maximum number of people to have a good look at some theatrical event happening in the center. Make a son et lumière production out of calling the Quarters—that helps when you have a large outdoor gathering.

On the negative side, I have attended large rituals where people brought folding chairs to sit in because they knew that they would wait a long time for anything to happen—for the oracular priest to make it around to where they sat, for instance. It was deathly dull.

Last month at the Heartland festival, held at a 160-acre site with a network of internal gravel roads, I saw a small procession passing ahead of one of the main evening rituals. I perked up at that, but the participants were more like camp criers: “Come to the ritual.”

No no no no no. The procession should BE the ritual—for most people. That is when you bring the gods out of the temple and take them down the street. It’s interactive, and it involves the bodies of the participants. Let everyone join in! Consider what is done in India or in Catholic countries and urban neighborhoods on certain saints’ days.2)Saints, gods, what’s the difference. We are trying to raise energy.

Instead of the procession being a warm-up act, I modestly suggested to two members of the Sacred Experience Committee (in other words, the ritual producers), it should be the Main Event. Idols! Musicians! Costumes!

If a more conventional ritual follows, that’s fine, but don’t expect everyone to come. But bring the procession past their campsite and entice them to join it because it is loud, colorful, and physical.

I remember one New Mexico festival in the late 1980s where the rituals were pretty good—maybe because the group was not too huge. But then one evening a handfasting was announced, and the campers spontaneously grabbed torches and lanterns and drums and flutes and processed behind the officiants to the site—and there was more “juice” in that procession than in the official circle-style ritual.

I’ve attended a few Pueblo Indian rituals since my dad used to drag me down to Zuni when I was three, and I have noticed something: The tribes don’t expect everyone to participate. The specialists—the appropriate religious society or priesthood—will perform both the hidden parts and the public parts—dances and so on. Many people will just be spectators. The important thing is that the ritual is performed for everyone’s benefit, whether they pay close attention or are off seated on an adobe wall eating watermelon or chatting up a potential romantic partner.

Likewise the old-time Pagans had used processions as a major large-group activity. Sometimes they ended, for example, at a sacrificial altar, and then the specialists took over. (Everyone ate later.) They did not make everyone sit in rows inside a temple—most activity took place outside the temple. Making you stand or sit around indoors while the specialists do their thing is the Christians’ mistake.3)Yes, the liturgical churches—Orthodox, Catholic, fancy Anglican—will give you visualization exercises etc. to do during the service, and there are postural changes—sitting, standing, kneeling—in some churches, but it is not what I would call movement.

Right now, we are in the middle of summer festival season in the US and elsewhere. Tell me what you see. Are people getting away from the “Let’s just make a big ol’ circle and call the Quarters” model? There has to be something that works better.

Notes   [ + ]

1. OK, maybe up to twenty or so, but that is more than enough, especially if they are skyclad and all waving athames.
2. Saints, gods, what’s the difference. We are trying to raise energy.
3. Yes, the liturgical churches—Orthodox, Catholic, fancy Anglican—will give you visualization exercises etc. to do during the service, and there are postural changes—sitting, standing, kneeling—in some churches, but it is not what I would call movement.

Viking Hoodoo — Who Knew?

Who knew the old Norse were into runic candle magic? Not me.

All right, you should not judge a museum exhibit by what is in the gift shop. It’s just that the designers of the Vikings: Beyond the Legend traveling exhibit, chiefly from the Swedish History Museum, if I understand correctly, took great pains to lay waste to “the one-dimensional stereotype of bearded barbarians with horned helmets.” And then you see for sale something that I am pretty sure is non-historical.1)What does the Lore say about about magic candles? Too bad. Syncretism for the win.

In fact, the exhibit explains multiple times that Norse fighters did not wear horned helmets but that those originated with a 19th-century opera costumer’s designs for Wagner’s Ring cycle.2)If you stop to think about it, horns make poor tactical sense. If an opponent’s downward blow struck the projecting horn, it might knock off your helmet, if you had no chin strap. If you had a chin strap, then it would give you a neck-crunching twist — bad news either way. Better to have the blow slide off.

The show is in Denver now, but apparently, like Cirque du Soleil, it has multiple versions on the road, one being now in Salt Lake City. 3)If it were truly like Cirque du Soleil, one exhibit would have a permanent home in Las Vegas. Instead of runic hoodoo candles, Valkyrie showgirls!

A Norse reenactor prepares to demonstrate how to spin woolen thread with a weighted spindle. I bet the original home lighting was never so good.

And since I am unlikely to visit Scandinavia soon, I will accept well-crafted replica ships rather than the real thing.

Exploration and settlement is rather down-played in favor of life in the homelands, since the focus is not so much on “going viking” but on trying to get by as Iron Age farmers and fisherfolk, raising little cows and sheep (by our standards) and chickens the size of “Cornish game hens.”

And there is definitely a Norse Paganism 101 component with interactive exhibits about the Aesir and Vanir.

See Vikings: Beyond the Legend if you can. And pick up a T-shirt and some candles.

Notes   [ + ]

1. What does the Lore say about about magic candles? Too bad. Syncretism for the win.
2. If you stop to think about it, horns make poor tactical sense. If an opponent’s downward blow struck the projecting horn, it might knock off your helmet, if you had no chin strap. If you had a chin strap, then it would give you a neck-crunching twist — bad news either way. Better to have the blow slide off.
3. If it were truly like Cirque du Soleil, one exhibit would have a permanent home in Las Vegas. Instead of runic hoodoo candles, Valkyrie showgirls!

Before The Pomegranate There Was Iron Mountain

Iron Mountain, my first venture into Pagan studies. Title calligraphy by Pat Musick. Coffee stains by me.

Having more or less majored in poetry in college, I was always involved in the world of “little magazines” (the more literary term) or simply “zines”1)I also helped to put out an underground newspaper in high shoool, which actually turned a small profit. Our overhead was low: one staff member stole all the necessary paper from the school office, while the “printing” was done on a spirit duplicator in the office of one student’s father, a physics professor at Colorado State University.Although a lot of zines were typed and photocopied, for awhile I owned my own Multilith offset duplicator, a hand-cranked mimeograph,2)After the revolution, brothers, we will just print with used motor oil. and a small letterpress.

A couple of the zines I was involved with were Wicca-related, but I don’t even have copies. When I decided to go to graduate school, I thought I might start my own journal of “magical religion.” Innocently, I thought that once I arrived at the University of Colorado, I could get funding for it. I was wrong about that. Since it was not a faculty project nor a class project, there seemed to be no money for it.

Its name was Iron Mountain: A Journal of Magical Religion. Iron Mountain was where M. and I were living (on its lower slopes) in Manitou Springs, Colorado, and I liked that its name had a vaguely Daoist resonance as well.3)The real Daoist, Gia-fu Feng, author and translator, had his communal house, Stillpoint, elsewhere in town, over in Ruxton Canyon.

I typeset it on my brand-new Kaypro II personal computer (this was the early 1980s), took a floppy disk to the local weekly newspaper to get the “cold type” galleys—long strips of paper—and then cut them and hot-waxed them to pasteboard page layouts that went to the printer.

I printed about two hundred of each issue, but by the time a librarian at a Georgia university approached me, all that was left was the scribbled-on and coffee-stained office copies, one of each issue.

These went to Georgia where they were scanned and put online as part of Valdosta State University’s New Age Movements, Occultism, and Spiritualism Research Library.

You may download each issue for free. You will find the table of contents of each issue online.

Partly through Iron Mountain, I got in on the ground floor of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions, which was published from 1985–1999. That was an education in itself.

Around the time that Gnosis ran out of steam, Fritz Muntean, attending graduate school at the University of British Columbia, created his own larger and better-produced zine than Iron Mountain, which he and co-editor Diana Tracy called The Pomegranate: A New Journal of Neopagan Thought.

I was flattered when he told me that Iron Mountain had been part of his inspiration.

Fritz invited me to help, and The Pomegranate got a new subtitle, The Journal of Pagan Studies, around 2000. At the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in 2001 we went shopping for a real publisher to make it a real scholarly journal, and eventually connected with Janet Joyce, who was working to open her own firm in the UK, Equinox Publishing.

And of course it’s now The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. Long may it wave.

Notes   [ + ]

1. I also helped to put out an underground newspaper in high shoool, which actually turned a small profit. Our overhead was low: one staff member stole all the necessary paper from the school office, while the “printing” was done on a spirit duplicator in the office of one student’s father, a physics professor at Colorado State University.
2. After the revolution, brothers, we will just print with used motor oil.
3. The real Daoist, Gia-fu Feng, author and translator, had his communal house, Stillpoint, elsewhere in town, over in Ruxton Canyon.

A Touch of Midwestern Gothic

In the woods at Camp Gaea, site of the Heartland Pagan Festival, a kind of lingam shrine.

On top of it, a decomposing teddy bear.

That makes me think of the first season of True Detective, among other things.

Something So Ordinary That It Was Lost

From the Moongiant calendar

I left for the Heartland Pagan Festival at the new Moon, and the first time that I noted the crescent was Saturday night, as the Moon rose over the Pavilion where Tuatha Dea was playing.

So I made my usual gesture, which is just blowing a kiss to Her.

But there used to be a different gesture that people used in Greece and elsewhere. I have asked several Classicists, but no one has yet told me what it was.

From an old book on Neoplatonism comes this story of the philosopher Proclus when he was a young man studying in Athens, which in the early 5th century was still a polytheistic enclave in the increasingly Christianized Roman empire:1)C. Bigg, Neoplatonism. Chief Ancient Philosophies (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1895), 319–20.

For life at that time no small courage was wanted. But Proclus did not lack resolution. When he paid his freshman’s call upon Syrianus [head of the Platonic Academy], it was the evening of the new moon, and the old professor dismissed him rather curtly, being anxious to get to his devotions as soon as possible, and not knowing what manner of man he had to deal with. But happening to catch a glimpse through the window, he saw Proclus take off his shoes, and do obeisance to the crescent moon in the open street.

In other words, Proclus made it clear that he, like Syrianus, was a devout Hellenic Pagan at a time when that was becoming riskier and riskier.

One friend thought that the obeisance might be a raising of the arms, but what about the taking off of the shoes?

Obviously this was once a commonplace gesture, like (in the USA) placing your hand on your heart when the national flag goes by at the beginning of a July 4th parade.

Now no one seems to know how it was done.

Notes   [ + ]

1. C. Bigg, Neoplatonism. Chief Ancient Philosophies (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1895), 319–20.

No “Neos” Here, We’re “Ethnic”

The flag of Romuva (Wikipedia).

A letter from one of the leading Hellenic Pagan groups to the government of Lithuania supports a request by the Lithuanian Romuva for state recognition.

Just as the Hellenic Ethnic Religion, Romuva is by no means a “neo-pagan movement” or a “new religious movement”. It belongs to the category of religions that the Religious Studies of the last 150 years name “ethnic” and “indigenous”, as it consistently refers to the recorded in the historical sources ancient Lithuanian traditions and, most importantly, to the living tradition of the indigenous religion, values and symbols, carried forward from generation to generation through the customs, songs, folklore and polyphonic ritual singing – sutartines. Romuva promotes the ancient Baltic Religion, cherishing in our days the traditional culture of the ancient Baltic ethnii as a spiritual, cultural and social heritage.

Do I buy that? Not totally. It’s a reconstructionist movement, making the claim that the folk songs contain encoded Pagan spiritual content. Is every tree a World Tree? In other words, it was started in the early 20th century but claims access to the 13th century, when German knights brought Christianity to Lithuania at the point of the sword. (And ended up controlling the land, oddly enough.)

To a scholar of new religious movements, Romuva would in fact be a new religious movement — and all religions are NRMs at some point.

It would be like saying that the English song “Greensleeves,” which goes back to the 16th century at least, contains encoded goddess religion. Or maybe it’s just a love song.1)OK, a lot of popular songs unwittingly invoke Aphrodite, I grant you that.

But let Baltic Paganism bloom. As a friend of mine noted, one day “Romuva are going to get their own Hutton,” and some of these historical issues will be sorted out.

Notes   [ + ]

1. OK, a lot of popular songs unwittingly invoke Aphrodite, I grant you that.

Heartland Festival Presentations, Take 2

Once again, I am packed, ready, and excited to be going to the Heartland Pagan Festival.  With any luck, that will be me stepping off the Southwest Chief in Lawrence, Kansas, on Friday morning. (Usually I snooze through Lawrence when traveling east and wake up for the long stop in Kansas City.)

This was all supposed to happen last year, and as I wrote then, the weather turned against me. I still feel sort of ashamed about aborting the trip — I could have maybe done one of my two presentations.

These are a “work in progress” discussion of the flying ointment project and the provocatively named “Nature Religion: You’re Doing It Wrong,” which is partly material from Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca And Paganism in America and partly some new stuff.

To me, this is more stressful than presenting at an academic conference, which shows what a recluse I have become. 🙂

The BBC Interviews Iceland Heathens

You can download this episode (27 minutes) of the BBC’s Heart and Soul program on the Heathens of Iceland:

Priestess at Icelandic blot (BBC).

Floating in a hot spring, snow falling from the night sky, John Laurenson meets Teresa Drofn. A 25-year-old Heathen, Teresa describes her return to the religion of her Viking forebears as a renewal of a unique spiritual relationship with nature.

A millennium after it was banned in exchange for Christianity, John explores why Icelanders are returning to the faith. At a ‘blot’, or sacred ceremony John hears a priestess read aloud from the Eddas, an ancient Icelandic text serving as scripture for the new heathens of Europe. In the old days at a ‘blot’, there’d be animal, even human sacrifices. Today they share in traditional Viking food, horse and whale, sheep’s head, puffin pâté and rotten shark.

Visiting the site of a newly planned Heathen temple John meets high priest Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson. Hilmar has presided over hundreds of weddings and seen his own congregation increase six-fold within a single decade. This new Heathen house of worship, the first in a thousand years, will be aligned with the sun’s path and burrowed deep into a hill near the city’s airport.

Not mentioned: a conversation with a Lutheran bishop who claims not to be concerned with the rise of traditional Norse Paganism because (a) the movement is “very small” and (b) they are sort of proto-Christian anyway, as shown, for example, by their abandonment of animal sacrifice.