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].

My Relationship to Odysseus? It’s Complicated.

Later this month, a new translation of the Odyssey, the first into English by a female scholar, will be published. (Click the cover image for a link.)

This New York Times article about Emily Wilson and her approach to the poem tells how she “places her flag” with her translation of one word at the beginning, polytropos, which she, unlike dozens of previous translators, chooses to translate as “complicated.” So her version opens like this:

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.


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.

Ancient Music: “Time Demands an End”

I often like to post re-creations of ancient music. Supposedly, the “Song of Seikilos” is the oldest that has music and lyrics. It is Greek, dating from around 100 CE.

The words can be translated as,

While you live, shine
have no grief at all
life exists only for a short while
and time demands an end.

Blogger Rod Dreher says it reminds him of a song by Beck, which contains a vague reference to “pagans”: “Beck Sings of Seikolos.”

And a commenter says wait, that ancient tune is on the sound track of Sid Meier’s game Civilization 5.

I played earlier versions of Civilization (and its offshoot Colonization, a/k/a The Barbarous Years).

But I just wanted to stay in the Bronze Age, sending out caravans, not progress to railroads and rocket ships.

Time demands an end.

Magic in Philadelphia, Worshiping Game Characters, and a Holy Mountain in Scotland


Photo: Penn Museum

• If you live in or near Philadelphia, visit the U. of Pennsylvania museum for “Magic in the Anciet World,” an exhibit that “explores some of the magical objects, words, and rituals used in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome.”

• When a Chinese grandmother left an offering at a statue of a video-game character, social media there lit up. But was she merely carrying on tradition?

• “Last temple of the Celts” might be overstating the matter just a little, but it’s an interesting article about a holy mountain in Scotland.

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.

Massive 2015 Year-End Link Dump! Something for Everyone!

This is a Druid knife. It says so.

Some of the links that I saved that never turned into blog posts . . .

• The Internet loves quizes, so “What Kind of Witch Would You Be?” (answer: hearth witch). I always suspect that the answer is based on just one question, while the others are there just for fluff and decoration.

• I saved this link from the Forest Door blog because I liked this thought:

This is, indeed, one of the roots of many problems in modern polytheism – people being unwilling to wait and let things naturally evolve. My biggest concern here isn’t the specific examples of mis-assignment (though they do exist, and are indicative of a serious lack of understanding in some cases). It is the fact that these folks are sitting around trying to artificially assign gods to places and things as if it’s just a game, or at best an intellectual exercise.

Local cultus is the new kale.

Is a knife named for Druids meant for Druids? (Echoes of allegations of human sacrifice?) Just what does “Druid” mean here?

• I did like John Halstead’s post on “the tyranny of structurelessness.” See also “Reclaiming.” See also “The Theology of Consensus.”

• Turn off the computer and play a 1,600-year-old Viking war game.

• From last July, a Washington Post story on Asatruar in the Army.

A photography book of modern British folklore. Not an oxymoron.

• More photography: “Earth Magic – Photographer Rik Garrett Talks About Witchcraft.”

What if witches hadn’t changed that much since medieval times and were still fairly close to the popular imagery conveyed by their early enemies during the classical witchhunts?

• So you’re a Pagan? Here are ten ways to show respect for your elders. It’s the Pagan way.

• Philosophy should teach you how to live. “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers.” Also, it’s Pagan.

• Reviewing a book on Greek and Roman animal sacrifice, which was, after all, the chief ritual back in the days when Paganism was the religion of the community.

• Was it the bells? Morris dancers attacked by dogs.

• Camille Paglia’s definition of “Pagan” is not mine, but she still kicks ass. Also, “Everything’s Awesome, and Camille Paglia Is Unhappy!”

• Embiggen thy word-hoard! Visit the Historical Thesaurus of Engish.

• But if you really want to go down the 15th-century rabbit hole, follow The Great Vowel Shift.

The New Yorker covers psychedelic therapy. To learn more, follow and donate to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. Also: “How Psychedelics Are Helping Cancer Patients Fend Off Despair.”

Looking good for an academic interview.

A review from last year of Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll.

• From the Chronicle of Higher Education: “How to Be Intoxicated.” Not surprisingly, Dionyus figures in more than does binge-drinking.

• Apparently the Yakuza, the Nipponese Mob, planned to call off Halloween due to a gang war. So how did that work out?

The War on Halloween


Sergei Aksyonov Photo: REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

It’s that time of year, time for the Russians to take their turn at complaining that Halloween is an evil Western import.

Segei Aksyonov, who has been placed in charge of the Crimean peninsula, which Russia recently snatched from Ukraine, called the holiday “cultural colonisation.”

Meanwhile, a spokes-priest for the Russian Orthodox Church suggests that celebrating Halloween leads to terrorism:

He also regrets that “when our country struggles against global terrorism, some of our citizens, may be jokingly, disguise in evil forces, making their children use to play with evil.”

Obviously, the Russian church is still catching up on clerical education following the end of the USSR. The root meaning of “cosmetic” is not “beauty” but “order,” with a secondary meaning of “ornamentation.” Look it up.

But if you want “cultural colonization,” (and I revert to the American spelling,)  just look here:
russians at McDsI took this photo last month on the Greek island of Corfu. The Russian guided-missile destroyer Smetlivy was in port, and sailors wandered the old town district on shore leave.

And did they end up in the hundreds of perfectly acceptable Greek bars and restaurants? No, they were always at McDonalds.

Look, spend your rubles on a good Corfu sofrito and some Corfu “real ale” and have fun on Halloween, OK?

If, that is, it is possible to feel festive while cruising up and down the Syrian coast.

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,, or LinkedIn.