Witchy Cultural Tourists Do Exist

In J. W. Ocker’s book A Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts, Jay Finney, chief marketing officer of the big Peabody Essex Museum, tells Ocker that “cultural tourists” who visit the museum are a different crowd than those who come to Salem for witchy stuff.

And he sees no point in marketing to the latter.

But he just did, because M and I are in both categories.

Here you see two refrigerator magnets from the Salem Witch Museum, my Black Phillip pin (really from Nerd Scouts but very Salem-ish), a receipt for two museum admissions, and, good measure, a National Park Service brochure about the maritime history of Salem. (Not shown: Salem Witch Museum t-shirt.) So you see, Mr. Finney, we can be “cultural tourists” and part of “that [t-shirt buying] demographic” At The Same Time.

I need to write a blog post about the maritime stuff.

The Southwest Follows Us to Salem & Salem Follows Us Home

Yet another addition to the Peabody Essex Museum is under construction.

Before M. and I left on this trip, someone mentioned a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the big Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. As it happened, the exhibit ended just before we arrived, but that’s all right — we can visit a whole museum devoted to her painting in Santa Fe whenever we are down there.

We live in southern Colorado – within the province of New Mexico, if you follow a pre-1821 map.1)Not that the Spanish ever settled this far north, although Gov. Juan Bautisa de Anza’s epic 1776 pursuit of Comanche raiders ended in a battle not far away. So we often feel that Santa Fe, more than Denver, is our cultural capital.

T. C. Cannon, self-portrait, 1975 (Wikipedia).

And what did the PEM have to replace O’Keefe: an exhibit devoted to the artist T. C. Cannon. 

Cannon (1946-1978) was an enrolled member of the Kiowa tribe, born in Oklahoma. He studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, then joined the Army, fought in Vietnam, returned to the US and painted up a storm until dying in a car crash in Santa Fe.

There’s almost another connection — a high-school friend of mine taught at IAIA, but not until a time after Cannon had finished there.

Coming soon, Kakawa in Salem! Photo made a few yards to the right of the one above.

No trip to Santa Fe is complete without a stop at Kakawa chocolate house, tucked away between some state government offices and the art galleries on Paseo de Peralta, where you can take your chocolate the way that Marie Antoinette drank hers or — my preference — the way that the emperor Moctezuma II  drank his, with chiles.

Imagine our surprise to see this storefront on Essex Street next to the museum: Kakawa is coming! Sure, I’d believe it in Aspen, Colo., or Scottsdale, Ariz., but Salem? I would love to know how they picked Salem, but I suspect that their new outlet will do well, being perfect for someone seeking a historical “elixir” after a morning of museuming. A Salem-Santa Fe axis — who knew?

Artemisia Botanicals

Further east on Essex Street sits Artemisia Botanicals, the serious herb shop in town (as opposed to the jars of herbs in some of the witch shops that have probably sat there for years and years), offering herbs, teas, oils, jewelry, and, of course, psychic readings.

We picked up a few things — for me it was a package of copal incense sticks. I have copal resin and like to use it for certain things, but there are times when sticks are just convenient. I looked at the label: They were from Fred Soll’s Incense in Tijeras, N.M., which is just east of Albuquerque. According to Mapquest, Tijeras is 358 miles (573 km) from my house, whereas Salem (had I chosen to drive), is about 2078 miles (3325 km).

But at last we are home. Then I see an unfamiliar car in the driveway.

Two nicely dressed men are at the bottom of the stairs, one middle-aged, one twenty-something. The older man holds a small, leather-bound book. When I step out onto the porch, he starts into a spiel about visiting the neighbors2)Never saw you before, buddy. and conducting a survey about how to find happiness.

¡Madre de dios! ¡Los puritanos!

I tell him that I never talk about religion before breakfast, and I am just about to sit down at the table. And that the best way out of the driveway is to pull toward the garage door, then cut your wheels hard as you back up.

Maybe they were just evangelicals, not Calvinists, but we live on an obscure road in the woods, and this was only the second missionary visit in twenty-five years.

The mystery of why the Kakawa chocolate house is coming to Salem has been solved! You can read the rest here.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Not that the Spanish ever settled this far north, although Gov. Juan Bautisa de Anza’s epic 1776 pursuit of Comanche raiders ended in a battle not far away.
2. Never saw you before, buddy.

I’m Here to Fill your Krampus-tide Stocking

Don’t forget to leave a penny for Krampus! (Maine State Museum).

Krampus likes lots of odd, pointy, and weird things, so let’s go . . . .

Was a genuine 11th-century Norse penny found in Maine dropped by a Norse explorer, or is it part of a long-time hoax? But would   “Egil Ketilson” have been carrying money? Where was he going to spend it, Skraeling-Mart?

• The initiates of Mithras also kept their secrets well. But they left some buildings, and people try to figure out the religion from those.

“I realized that if I designed my metal band, it would definitely be a pagan feminist folkcore band, which is a Swedish/Norwegian style of metal music. It’s really ambient and loud even though it’s not using as much electricity-style [sic] instruments. I realized that I didn’t know anything about paganism. I was grabbing onto it because it seemed logical for this brand of metal. Slowly, over the years, I started researching goddesses and figuring out that in paganism there is a lot of mathematics and numerology. That instantly peaked [sic] my curiosity because I like working with numbers.”

Being avante-garde these days is such a lot of work.  And you have to learn about runes and electricity and stuff. (Does anyone still say “avante-garde”?)

• “Your eyes appear to have a magical power all of their own”? “You operate at a lower body temperature than the people around you.” You might be descended from Fairies.  Yeah, sure, tell it to Krampus.

Some “Spare” Links and the “Witchcraft Aesthetic”

¶ The University of Heidelberg has scanned and put online a 1916 issue of Form, a small British art magazine containing numerous illustrations by Austin Osman Spare, noted English occultist and artist. Here is a sample.

¶ If I were visiting Milan, I would visit this Tarot painter’s studio and drop a few euros. Maybe I could afford one card.

His shop boasts an endless variety of cards, making it a treasure trove for lovers of the occult in the Italian North. Some decks depict the major and minor arcana (tarot’s “face card” and “number card” equivalents) in Cubist shapes. Others portray them as animals or even flowers, inspired by vintage science books. One deck reimagines traditional iconography with old maps that Menegazzi finds at Milanese flea markets. 

¶ First, I am always suspicious when a news article introduces someone as “controversial,” as in this case: “the controversial Azealia Banks.” It’s like a way of saying, “We don’t like her, but we are pretending to be objective.”

According to the article, the performer outed herself as a  Brujeria practitioner, in other words, folk witchcraft.

The video shows Banks getting ready to clean out her closet in which she has practiced Brujeria for the past three years. After seeing the closet caked in chicken blood, feathers, and some black stuff we can’t figure out, the Internet of course went wild. But why was everyone so shocked to learn that Banks had been sacrificing chickens? The artist, as problematic as she may be, has admitted to practicing — specifically Brujeria —in the past.

But then the writer, one Samantha Mercado, gets off onto the subtlties of the “witchcraft aesthetic” and female empowerment.

There are plenty of pop culture trends that feed feminism, but the mainstreaming of witchcraft has proved both empowering and problematic. The word and idea of a witch were traditionally associated with demonizing women — images of an ugly outcast cackling over a cauldron or a green Margaret Hamilton come to mind. But recently, the image and connotation associated with witches has become more and more empowering — witches are being portrayed as heroines instead of demons.

With this new, all-empowering image of a witch comes a slew of trends pandering to a “witch aesthetic.” From blogs to high-end clothing lines, it seems like everyone is trying to cash in on the witch trend, and while the increased popularity of witchcraft has helped the practice grow, it makes you wonder if everyone appropriating it understands its origins.

Oh shit, the secret is out. Witches don’t go door to door asking if you have heard the word of Cernunnos. No, we let the “aesthetic” reel in the innocent seekers. We’re happy to see young ladies dressed up in “sexy witch” costumes. Next thing, Pandemonaeon albums, festivals, polyamory, and arguments over “traditional.” (With the guys, it’s tricker. But not much.)

Really, art beats dogma every time.

Gallery of Saints and Muses


Last October, I posted about my Byzantine-style icon of the Emperor Julian the Philosopher, which now hangs in my study, and the artist who created it, Sasha Chaitow.

She is working on new series — saints, muses, angels — and posted a short video about her creative process and the cooperative gallery she created, Icon, on the Greek island of Corfu. (Because it is Corfu, there must always be icons of St. Spyridon, its patron saint, in the mix.) Here is the gallery’s page on Facebook.

Why am I writing about a painter of Christian saints? Because Sasha is an esotericist at heart, who moves from one manifestation of the sacred to another as easily as she switches from Greek to English.

An Icon from an Alternate Universe

sasha & julian 2-sm

Sasha and the emperor, at Icon Gallery.

We arrived in Corfu late in the evening of the 12th of September and had about fifteen minutes of worry when the agent of the apartment’s owner was not present to meet us at the airport, as promised. And I had neglected to get his number!

But I did have the number for Yannis, the owner, who lives in Athens, and I called him. He promised to call Nikos, the agent. Soon he called back to say that Nikos had car problems but would soon be in touch, which he was. Before too long Nikos arrived — on a Vespa — got us a taxi, and we were off.

He showed us the apartment, gave us the keys, and said that he would be back inthe late morning to collect the rent (assuming we liked the place — which we did) and give us a quick tour of the neighborhood.

“At home” at last, but too jittery to sleep, we took a walk through part of Corfu’s old town, quickly locating Sasha Chaitow’s Icon Gallery, where something was waiting for me.

julian icon-sm

Juiian holding his “Hymn to King Helios”

When Sasha, whom I knew via the American Academy of Religion and The Pomegranate, opened the gallery, I commissioned an icon from her. Not another John the Baptist or St. Spyridon — but the last Roman Pagan emperor, done in the Byzantine style that evolved in later centuries.

She sent a preliminary sketch. We went back and forth by email — laurel wreath or imperial diadem? — and so on.

It came from sort of a quickly fantasized alternative history, one in which Julian had not died in that cavalry skirmish with the Persians in 363 CE in what is now northern Iraq, but had lived, had succeeded in his quest to re-institute and reform the old Pagan practices, and become venerated after his death.

That’s my alternative history, and I’m sticking to it. The day after I arrived in Corfu, I was holding it in my hands. Now it hangs on the study wall, glowing.

Sasha holds an MA in Western esotericism from the University of Exeter and a PhD in myth and literature from the University of Essex, as well as being an accomplished painter. She takes commissions, and you can contact her through the gallery website, Facebook, Academia.edu, or LinkedIn.

The Occluded Life of an “Occult” Photographer

William Mortensen touching up a photo portrait of the actress Jean Harlow. Other photos NSFW.

If a phrase like “famous early twentieth century California photographer” makes you think of Edward Weston or Ansel Adams, then you probably have not heard of William Mortensen, known “as ‘the Antichrist’ by Ansel Adams, a tag that stuck after Anton LaVey dedicated The Satanic Bible to him. Primarily known as a Hollywood portrait artist, he developed a myriad of pre-Photoshop special effects to craft grotesque, erotic, and mystical images.”

Publicizing a new book of his photos, Vice offers “The Grotesque Eroticism of William Mortensen’s Lost Photography.”

His life remained a mystery. I had absorbed A. D. Coleman’s essay about Mortensen’s relegation to the backwater of photo history by the Newhalls, Adams and the rest, and, thus understood why there was little mention of him in photo history books. I’d even tracked down the booklet printed by Deborah Irmas and The Los Angeles Center for Creative Photography, who had put together the show that I’d seen. However, when I found any biographical information, the sources repeated the same story line, which came from the brief autobiographical section in Mortensen’s book The Command To Look. Beyond those slim facts there seemed to be nothing more. William Mortensen appeared to be more myth than man.

Would we say that Chicago photographer and occult historian Rik Garrett is somewhat in his lineage?

Marion Zimmer Bradley, Greenpeace, and the Donatists

Back in the 4th century CE, Western Christianity had a problem. During the Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, which began in 303 and was severe in some areas, some Christian clergy in the Berber communities of North Africa had surrendered copies of Scripture and otherwise complied with the emperor’s edicts.

When Diocletian was replaced by the pro-Christian Constantine, the hold-outs who had resisted the persecution denounced the first group as impure. Led by a bishop named Donatus, they argued that clergy who had followed imperial orders were sinners who could no longer baptize or celebrate the Eucharist.

But the bishops in Rome, busy hitching the Christian church to the imperial chariot, said no, it’s all good. Or in Latin, ex opere operato, meaning that even if the priest is a sinner, the sacrament is still valid because it comes from God.

I heard this argument from an environmentalist friend yesterday in regard to the news stories about the European Greenpeace executive who commutes to work twice a week by airplane, even as Greenpeace itself campaigns against air travel.

“This kind of bad-example-setting undercuts the message,” I said.

“The organization’s work is still more important,” she said. Ex opere operato. Or as another Catholic once said, “The church may be a whore, but she is still our mother.”

I thought about the Donatists when the news broke last March about well-known Pagan musician Kenny Klein’s arrest on child-pornography charges.  Am I now supposed to smash my Fishbird CD and delete those tracks from my iPod? Or can I say, “Ex opere operato“?

Now it’s Marion Zimmer Bradley. That her husband Walter Breen was an aggressive pedophile is old news. But now the finger points at her: it’s all summed up here.

So who is throwing away their copies of The Mists of Avalon? Or is there an escape clause for artistic works? Is the creative act the equivalent of a religious sacrament? Must we judge the creation according to the morals of the creator or may we invoke the religion of Art: ex opere operato?

Oh yeah, Greenpeace executive Pascal Husting will now take the train, it is said. He made a “misjudgment.” But read the  comment st the Guardian website by “E McBain”: it sounds like one rule for the clergy and one for the rest of us.

Beavering Away at Home

beaver ponds10-13Once in a while, I like to note that Hardscrabble Creek is a real place. The beaver pair had kits this year, and they also expanded their dams from two to five. A couple of years ago, they left because they had eaten all the available deciduous forage, mostly narrowleaf cottonwood and willows. Will the rising water table encourage more beaver-edible trees to grow? (They don’t eat pines.) Can they keep expanding their string of dams upstream?

And here are some links:

¶ At Occult Chicago, Rik traces sites associated with Thee Church of Satan in the 1970s.

¶  Artforum notes the recent Occult Humanities Conference: Contemporary Art and Scholarship on the Esoteric Traditions.

¶ Anton Lavey’s daughter Zeena describes how her Halloween experience when she was a little girl living with her father, the founder of the Church of Satan.

For the first quarter century of my life, back when I was the devil’s defender, Halloween wasn’t the fun and merriment it was for many others.

¶ Oh no! I bought the Halloween candy, but I forgot to pray over it!

St. Georgia, Maker of Art, Pray for Us

St. Georgia (Wikipedia).

Here in the city whose patron is St. Francis (more about that later), I keep thinking that the new pope of the same name might as well go ahead and canonize — or at least beatify —  Georgia O’Keeffe.

Yes, there are some obstacles. For one, she was not Roman Catholic, not particularly Christian at all. But what a move to bring more of the bourgeois bohemians into the fold it would be!

Consider the devotion that she inspires.

Walking down Grant Street the other day, I could see little flocks of pilgrims (mostly female, mostly of a certain age) streaming off the streets around the plaza, headed for her shrine.

That shrine, meanwhile, is merely part of an entire O’Keeffe complex, where the pilgrim may enrich her life with programs and lectures on memoir-writing,  “art & leadership for adults,” plein-air pastel drawing, “O’Keefe’s language of forms,”  and many other sacred subjects.

Advanced initiates might seek a stipend in American modernism.

Many single women move to the little town of Aibquiu, a Santa Fe acquaintance tells me, where one may for a fee tour just part of O’Keeffe’s home there: the living room, kitchen, and pantry only, I am told. Have any of them experienced miracles? That would help the sainthood application clear a major hurdle.

Her other home, Ghost Ranch, has functioned as a spiritual retreat center for many years.  (It is owned by Protestants, which could be a problem. But no matter.)

Her followers look to her for lessons on the art of living and even study her rather plain menus for guidance on how an artist eats.

While her cultus already provides an economic lift to the old provincial capital, beatification or canonization would certainly increase that even more.

Just tell the bishops to keep their distance. Otherwise, it’s a win-win situation. Are you listening, Holy Father?