They Were Not Witches — They Are Our Martyrs

Walking through the witch-trial memorial park.

This is the memorial created in 1992 for the victims of the Salem trials in Salem, Mass. Each “bench” contains the name of an accused person: “Margaret Scott. Hanged. September 22, 1692.”

Walk there, and you know that it has become a shrine.

Then you realize that you are walking on their words, their pleas to the uncaring judges: “God knows I am innocent of such wickedness.”

Twenty-five people died (five of them in prison), all professing their innocence, and I tend to believe them. But they left us something: Witch Tees!

And Witch Pix!

And a passel of museums, “haunted houses,” ghost tours, and the like.

Crow Haven Corner.

The first witchcraft shop was Laurie Cabot’s the Witch Shoppe in 1971, which later moved and was renamed Crow Haven Corner.

It has been joined by many others. Walking along nearby Pickering Wharf feels like a trip down Diagon Alley.

Could Sarah Good, a homeless beggar (hanged) or Susannah Martin, an impoverished widow (hanged)  have imagined that their deaths would produce a Salem where being a witch is fairly normal and the police cars have flying witches on their doors? 1)Meanwhile, two burly Salem cops are yelling at some kid to get off his bike, which he is riding illegally on the pedestrian mall.

The National Park Service visitor center, devoted both to Salem’s peak years as a port in the 18th and 19th centuries and to the events of 1692, contains several shelves of books on historical witchcraft.

It’s a crooked path, all right, from hysterical teenagers accusing adults of witchcraft before judges who accepted “spectral evidence” to a wax museum, signage directing visitors to Gallows Hill, and at least two dozen witchcraft shops, but there it is.

The “witches” of 1692 gave it to us.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Meanwhile, two burly Salem cops are yelling at some kid to get off his bike, which he is riding illegally on the pedestrian mall.

Hey, Baby, What’s Your Sign? Want to Check Out my Van?

It is a fact in journalism that some things never get old. Stories about today’s young people are evergreen: Are they hopeless screw-ups? Do they possess a brilliant new world-saving vision? Or both? Or neither?

Live long enough, and everything recycles, like platform shoes (they were popular in the 17th century too, not that I remember that far back). Here is a piece on “Why millennials are ditching religion for witchcraft and astrology.”

Astrology has been debunked by numerous academic studies, but Banu Guler, co-founder of artificial intelligence powered astrology app Co—Star said the lack of structure in the field is exactly what drives young, educated professionals to invest their time and money in the practice.

Take out the word “app,” and that sounds like the early 1970s to me, another “tumultuous political time” (Vietnam War, resignation of President Nixon, etc.)

And speaking of the Seventies, when I knew people who did it, here is a snarky piece in the New York Post titled “Meet the pretentious millennials who romanticize living in vans.”

Twenty-four years ago, calling your car home was Plan Z. Now it’s a generation’s greatest aspiration.

Copiously illustrated with photos of beautifully restored VW campers, both air-cooled buses and water-cooled Vanagons, the article would produce a predictable result from M., who still laments that we sold the 1984 Vanagon camper that we owned from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.

“I could put it up by myself!” she would say. #Vanlife.

And so she could, but the only mechanic in Nearby Town who would work on fiddly European fuel-injection systems had been about to retire.1)He was a treasure, though, and people knew it. I would walk into his shop, where the radio was always on the classical music station, and there would be an Aston-Martin or a Maserati. “I had no idea that anyone in [Blank] County owned one of these!” I would say. “Oh yeah,” he would reply.

So I sold the Vanagon to a guy up in Fort Collins, thanks to the Internet, and got something with four-wheel-drive. Volkswagen did make an all-wheel-drive Vanagon, the Synchro, and while fishing in the mountains last June I found a nicely restored example parked at a trailhead.

I complimented the owner on his van, and he launched into a list of all the systems on it that he had rebuilt. “You have to be a mechanic,” he said.

No, thanks. On the old VWs, maybe. Nowadays I do some work on my old Jeep CJ-5, and everything else goes to the pros.

If you hanker after an older VW bus or Vanagon, I think the the place to be is New Mexico, where both they and people who will work on them seem to end up.

And, since you asked, Gemini.

Notes   [ + ]

1. He was a treasure, though, and people knew it. I would walk into his shop, where the radio was always on the classical music station, and there would be an Aston-Martin or a Maserati. “I had no idea that anyone in [Blank] County owned one of these!” I would say. “Oh yeah,” he would reply.

Let’s Have More Writing about Pagan Experience

I used to complain about the dearth of American Pagan biography and autobiography. Michael Lloyd’s Bull of Heaven: The Mythic Life of Eddie Buczynski and the Rise of the New York Pagan and John Sulak’s The Wizard and the Witch: Seven Decades of Counterculture, Magick & Paganism made a big dent in that, but we could use more.

Meanwhile, we could use more nonfiction writing too!  Currently, much Pagan nonfiction comes in two flavors. First is the how-to-be-a-better-Pagan genre, which has kept Llewellyn in business all these years. I have done my part to contribute to it.

And there is the blogger-ish “Oh, look what a devoted devotional polytheist I am — I spent half a day assembling a playlist for my evening devotions. Here it is!”

What I want to see more of is just good writing on what it feels like to be Pagan. Hence I have come to admire Eric Scott’s writing, including his novella The Lives of the Apostates or this Wild Hunt column on a trance-possession ritual at a Pagan festival last May.

Afterwards, while talking about my friend’s difficulty coming down from the possession of the mask, the ritual’s high priest held mixture of concern and scientific questioning. The masks had been enchanted to deactivate upon removal, a sharp and seamless conclusion to the ritual, but Eris had still been laughing in my friend’s ears at the time she went to bed. The kill-switch had gone awry somehow; something must have been wrong with their masks.

Not “what should you do” but “what was it like?”

Pentagram Pizza Cut into 12 Slices

• Everything old is new againyoung Chinese discover the Western zodiac and think that it is cooler than “Year of the Monkey,” etc.

• “Witchcrap” from The Daily Beast website — “These Modern Witches Want to Cast a Spell on You.”

Modern witchcraft combines feminism, self-help, and wellness. But is there more to it than pretty crystals, stunning Instagram pictures, and lucrative business opportunities?

I think that’s called “fake news.”

• From Jason Miller’s Strategic Sorcery blog:American Gods: The Jersey Devil and the Pines Witch.”   This post was part of “The American Gods Project” — read the rest. “Truly, all sorcery is local.”

• In Albania, they stop the Evil Eye with plushies. Truly, all sorcery is local.

I Lived in Magic: A Video Biography of Oberon Zell

Produced and directed by Danny Yourd (Animal Studio), this meditative interview with Oberon Zell (co-founder of the Church of All Worlds and the man who put “Neo-Pagan” into the American religious vocabulary in the 1970s) is a valuable piece of American Pagan history. (It can also be viewed at the Vimeo site.)

Interspersed with video clips from the 1970s, 1980s, and on to the present — including the quixotic New Guinea mermaid quest — it pivots on his relationship with his life partner, the late Morning Glory Zell. (Their lives are also examined in John Sulak’s  The Wizard and the Witch: Seven Decades of Counterculture, Magick & Paganism, which might be the best inside look at the American Pagan scene ever written.)

Oberon reflects on his life, on his loss of Morning Glory, but he is not giving up. “Don’t let it die,” were among her last words, and so the grey-haired wizard carries on. I know that he will do so until he is gone, and something like the mythic cry of Merlin is heard in the redwoods of California.

The Old Ones Built Wisely

equinox sunset

The Sun sets in Equinox Notch, one day before the actual spring equinox.

My house comes with its own solar calendar, sort of. I discovered when M. and I moved here in the 1990s that the equinoctial sunset occurs in a notch formed by the ridge to the west, as viewed from the front porch.

Surely the ancient builders planned this!

Actually, the “ancient builder” was Alan Cook, a minister in the “New Church  (General Convention),” one of the Swedenborgian denominations, who lived from 1893–1984.  He was active as a minister in the 1920s, then came to Colorado to manage a summer resort in Green Mountain Falls, west of Colorado Springs. No longer a minister with a congregation, he still held some Sunday services for the tourists and wrote in a typically Swedenborgian style, which is big on correspondences between the visible world and the Unseen World.

Mountains, as we know, signify exalted states of affection. And God’s love is the most high and exalted of which we know.

Pagan me says no, the natural world was not put here only to provide a moral lesson to us humans, although I can still feel some affinity with a man who wrote,

But the man of spiritual mind should discern the far greater wealth which lies beyond mere nature [sic] and the commercial worth of rock — he may know their soul, and, in a measure at least, he will be able to share that wealth.1)Alan Cook, “A Letter from Colorado,” Ohio New-Church Bulletin, September 1928, n.p.

I found a photo of Alan Cook with some other books and materials stored in a crawlspace, and it hangs on the Wall of Ancestors in my study — which was his study too. We do not share theologies, but I like to think he approves the room being filled with a desk and bookcases once again.

Happy Ostara!

Notes   [ + ]

1. Alan Cook, “A Letter from Colorado,” Ohio New-Church Bulletin, September 1928, n.p.

Survey: Pagan Spirituality in Resilience

I am passing this survey information on from a colleague:

My name is David Christy, I am currently a Ph.D. student in the Pastoral Counseling department at Loyola University Maryland. Several years ago I participated in a series of conversations at Pantheacon focused on the needs of the Pagan community. One of the most pressing needs identified was for increased understanding of our community among mental health professionals. As most of you probably know studies of religion and spirituality have been picking up steam the field of psychology. However, few researchers are looking at non-Abrahamic traditions and issues. I’m trying to change that, and I hope you will help me.

I am currently conducting a study that examines the role of spirituality in resilience. I am especially interested in reaching out to the Pagan community since we are so underrepresented in the research literature (despite the fact that we’re the second fasted growing religious group in the US). Please consider taking this survey and boosting the signal by sharing it with others in your communities.

Participation involves responding to a number of forms, checklists, and questionnaires relating to your experience, knowledge, attitudes, and behavior, as well as providing non-identifying demographic information. These instruments include attitudinal surveys, activity checklists, and self-report measures. It should take approximately 30 minutes to complete all the measures. If you are interested in participating either click on the link below or copy and paste it into a web browser. Please also feel free to share the link to this study.

https://loyola.co1.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_bQrcCnJIHm1ScF7

If you have any questions or concerns about this study, please contact me at the address listed below. This study was approved by the Institutional Review Board at Loyola University Maryland. You may contact the IRB at 410-617-2004.

David Christy, M.Div.
Primary Investigator
Department of Pastoral Counseling
Loyola University Maryland
8890 McGaw Road, Suite 280
Columbia, MD 20145
dchristy@loyola.edu

CFP: 2017 AAR Contemporary Pagan Studies Group

All the calls for the 2017 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion are now online. The meeting itself will be held 18–21 November in Boston.

The Pagan studies theme is “Witch Hunts: Rhetorical, Historical and Contemporary.”

The term “witch hunt” is used as a rhetorical strategy in contemporary political discourses, and yet there have been and are actual hunts for witches past and present. The Contemporary Pagan Studies Unit invites papers on a variety of topics, using various methodologies, exploring rhetorical, historical, and contemporary “witch hunts.” The following suggested topics are not exclusive:

• The historical persecution of people as “witches,” both in Salem, Massachusetts, other places in the United States, and elsewhere.

• Contemporary persecution of people as “witches” in Sub-Saharan Africa.

• Sites of representation or memorialization of witch hunts, for example, Salem, Massachusetts, and Vardo, Norway.

• The mythologizing of witch hunts, witchcraft persecution, and/or negative images of the “witch.”

• The hunt for “witches” as antagonists to the “true’” faith or as disruptors of good social order.

• Tensions and contrasts between witchcraft-as-malefic and witchcraft-as-Paganism.

The Pagan-Esoteric Complex: Mapping Intersecting Milieus.
Despite the considerable overlaps that exist between contemporary Paganism and Western esotericism, there have been no conscious efforts to bring scholars in these two fields together around intersecting research interests. To amend this situation, the Western Esotericism Unit and the Contemporary Pagan Studies Unit invite papers that deal with one of the following three intersections:

• Intersecting milieus of practitioners (e.g., shared spaces and material cultures, shared practices, overlapping group memberships).

• Intersecting identity discourses (e.g., the formation of identities around tropes such as “magic vs. religion”, “Pagan vs. Christian”, or “tradition vs. modern”).

• Intersecting histories and genealogies (e.g., the roots of esotericism in the mnemohistory of Paganism, and the roots of contemporary Pagan practice in nineteenth-century esotericism).

We are particularly interested in papers that focus on mapping contemporary milieus, but historical and conceptual papers are also welcome.

• Pagan and “pagan” Musics.
The Contemporary Pagan Studies Unit and the Music and Religion Unit are co-sponsoring a session that would document, compare, and theorize the different uses of the term “Pagan,” to either describe music associated with a set of religious or spiritual cultures and practices or the ways in which “pagan” was used as a term of exoticization of art and popular musics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We welcome a variety of approaches and methodologies. Some suggestions for topics might include: Contemporary Pagan musical traditions and chants, use of music in ritual, Pagan musicians and festivals, or “pagan” as signifier or marketing term for exotic or non-Western musics. We also welcome submissions on any topic in contemporary Pagan studies outside of these suggested session themes.

For complete information, visit the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group’s website.

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.

“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.