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].

Aphrodite Will Not Be Denied (3) — and also Hestia.


In a 2003 post titled “Aphrodite Will Not Be Denied,” I linked to Muslim clerics’ criticism of Lebanese pop star Haifa Wehbe.

Another Muslim singer with more complicated ancestry, Deeyah, “irked the Muslim world” with her music videos, and I said, “As I once wrote, ‘Aphrodite will not be denied.’ You either acknowledge the powers of the gods, or they will assert themselves in uncontrollable ways.”

Now it’s an Egyptian’s turn

A female pop star in Egypt has been arrested after posting a “sexually suggestive” music video, in the second such case there in recent months.

Leila Amer appeared in an online video called “Boss Oumek” or “Look at your mother”, which includes sensual oriental dance and provocative gestures.

It also includes household laundry, meal preparation, and ducks. Very sensual ducks.

No joke for Leila Amer, however.

Prosecutors in Egypt have detained the singer for four days for “incitement to debauchery” after the clip sparked controversy in the increasingly conservative country.

Not knowing Arabic, I wonder if the message is somewhere between “Listen to your mom, you slacker” and “A woman’s work is never done.”1)From an old folk saying, usually given as “A man may work from sun to sun [dawn to dusk]. but a woman’s work is never done.” There is what could be considered a visual allusion to watching online porn.

Even here in the woods, I do know one thirty-something Egyptian woman in the nearest little town. I could ask her to translate, but then, she comes from a devout Coptic Christian family and is now married to an American evangelical Christian, so answering the question, “Why are you interested in this singer?” could get complicated. Or maybe not. Who knows?

Notes   [ + ]

1. From an old folk saying, usually given as “A man may work from sun to sun [dawn to dusk]. but a woman’s work is never done.”

Minor Middle-Eastern Monotheists — And the Last Pagans in Pakistan

One god, one or more recognized prophets, a preoccupation with female sexuality — are we talking about Islam? Not this time. Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East is a religion-nerd’s tour of “disappearing religions” such as those of the Iraqi Mandaeans or the Zorastrians of Iran. Some, it must be said, are less monotheistic than others.

Written by Gerard Russell, a former British diplomat-turned-policy wonk, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is a journalistic survey of ancient religions that might likely be crushed by the Islamic State (like the Yazidis) or by other Muslim fundamentalism (Egypt’s Coptic Christians or the polytheistic Kalasha people of the Aghan-Pakastani boder).

Or they may all end up in Michigan — except for the Yazidis, whose chief immigrant home is Lincoln, Nebraska. There is a reason why the final chapter is titled “Detroit,” since that metro area has attracted many Middle Eastern immigrants.

Russell writes,

In the course of fourteen years as an Arabic- and Farsi-speaking diplomat, working and traveling in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon, I enountered religious beliefs that I had never known of before: a taboo against wearing the color blue, obligatory mustaches, and a reverence for peacocks. I met people who believed in supernatural being that take human form, in the power of the planets and stars to steer human affairs, and in reincaration.

He visits and interviews the Mandaeans, who trace their religious lineage to John the Baptist (a “greater miracle worker than Jesus”), people who lived in Iraq since biblical times but who have now mostly fled.

The Yazidis. whose recent persecuation by the Islamic State made headlines, follow “an esoteric religion that has superficial similarities to Islam but is very different from it. . . .  Yazidis believe in reincarnation, sacrifice bulls, and revere an angel who takes the form of the peacock.”

But they have also been frequently accused of “devil-worship,” with predictably bloody results. They might have a root in the ancient worship of Mithras, whose cult was important in imperial Rome as well, brought home by legionaires who served in the Middle East.

He briefly visits some Alawite Muslims too, “technically Shi’a  [but with] as little in common with orthodox Shi’a as Unitarians . . . with evangelical Protestants,” who may share a religious lineage with the ancient inhabitants of the city of Harran, who themselves long kept up a sort of Neoplatonism by convincing their Arab conquerors that they were somehow “people of the book,” i.e., fellow monotheists.1)The Alawites are secretive about their doctrines, he adds, and because Syrian President Assad is one, he did not ask many questions.

Zoroastrians, followers of the ancient Persian religion, hang on in small numbers, celebrating the winter solstice with watermelons and pomegranates. (Their way has enjoyed a small revival lately among the Kurds, who were part of the Persian empire.) They gave us the word “magic.”  And they like dogs better than cats, as their scripture tells them:

“When passing to the other world, the soul of a person who has hit a dog “shall fly howling louder and more sorely grieved than the sheep does in the lofty forest when the wolf ranges.” A man who kills a dog is required by the Avesta to perfomr a list of penances eighteen lines long. One of the penances is to kill a thousand cats. Because Muslims preferred cats over dogs, which they think of as uncean, disputes over the treatment of dogs often led to fights between Zoroastrians and Muslims.

(Can’t we be ecumenical here?)

The few hundred Samaritans, living in Israel and Palestine, were the Hebrews who never accepted the consolidation of the cult of YWHW, with Jerusalem the only official temple site. Like the Druze, they marry only within their own group. The Druze themselves, Russell suggests, carry on some of the teaching of Pythagoras and Hermes Trismegistus — but living in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, have often formed their own armed factions in the region’s wars.

Until the 19th century, meanwhile, a few indigenous Pagan tribues lingered in “Kafirstan”2)meaning Land of Unbelivers/Polytheists (now Nuristan), a mountainous region at the northern edge of British India. They were freedom-loving, warlike, and prone to raids and blood-feuds. In 1895, the Muslim amir of Kabul, whose troops had guns, conquered most of them.

In the 1950s, the British travel writer Eric Newby was shown a stone red with the blood of those who chose execution [over conversion to Islam.

One group the “Iron Amir’s” troops missed was the Kalasha, numbering just a few thousand, celebrating their festivals, worshipping their gods, and being less obssessive about sexual control than their Muslim neighbors — for instance, women can request a divorce without penalty and walk around with their faces unveiled. That freedom influences a sort of Pakistani sex-tourism, however:

I was told that the summer festival attracted many Pakistani tourists who were as intrigued as those from Greece or countries even further afield . . . some came with the wrong idea: they expected that because Kalasha women did not wear veils and were not Muslims, they would be available for sex. [A Kalasha prohibition on sex during the festival] does not stop prostitutes from coming from other parts of Pakistan to exploit the legend by dressing as Kalasha women, though, trading on this desire for the exotic.

There is a special connection between the Kalashas and the Greeks — maybe — it has at least led to some privately funded Greek foreign aid.

Many of these groups, who survived by living in remote places or by making accomodations with Islamic rulers, now are being ground between fundamentalist Islam and increasing bureaucratic efficiency of nation-states. Consequently, many have left: Chaldean, Iraqi, Egyptian, and Palestinian Christians in particular are fleeing.

As late as the 1990s there were still 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Now . . . probably only a third of that number remain, or even fewer.

Druze and Mandaeans live in Boston; Yazidis, as mentioned, have congregated in Lincoln, Neb., and some other places. But the negative propaganda follows them:

The one thing that upset the family about American culture was the way their religion was represented. Abu Shihad said he had heard a CNN reporter describe the Yazidis as “the most hideous religion in the world.” I found this hard to believe, but he was very sure he had heard it.

The tragedy, Russell suggests, is that since many of these groups have been keeping their doctrines secret and marrying only in-group according to complicated rules for so long,  once transplanted to North America they find it impossible to carry on as before.

Notes   [ + ]

1. The Alawites are secretive about their doctrines, he adds, and because Syrian President Assad is one, he did not ask many questions.
2. meaning Land of Unbelivers/Polytheists

More Links — Hand-Forged Ones At That

Utility seax from Fay’s Forge

• At Fay’s Forge you may buy “knives, swords, and do castings from the Celtic, migration, Anglo Saxon, and Norse cultures.” Support your local shieldmaiden.

Probably it would be more accurate to say that the planned Black Mass terrifies some Christians in Oklahoma. And before you dump on Oklahoma, remember that Harvard University backed down from a similar proposal!

• I have ordered this book: Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.

With Daesh slaughtering and enslaving Yezidis and Mandeans, etc., “disappearing” may not be an exaggeration. As a long review in The Revealer asks,

Will the funeral pyres of the Zoroastrians still alight the dusks of Iran and India? Will the Copts still maintain the well where Mary and Joseph quenched Jesus’ thirst upon the flight into Egypt? Will the Samaritans still smear the blood of the lamb upon their lintels as their ancestors in bondage did? Will the wooden idols of the Kalasha look out at the unforgiving and cragged landscape of the Kush? What of the Yazidis who believe that God is so benevolent that even the devil can be saved? Or the Mandaeans who whisper secrets in the language of the Magi and the Chaldean wizards?

I Was Afraid This Might Happen

There is a well-established (since the 1970s, I think) Pagan/metaphysical bookstore in Denver called Isis Books & Gifts.

Someone got confused about the name, it appears. And it was not the first time.

All the more reason to refer to those rapists and beheaders as “Daesh” or the “Islamic State.”

Responding to Attacks on Pagan Shrines

_85298986_palmyra_before_after_624On the 20th of August, I posted about “Khalid al-Asaad and the War on Pagan Idolatry.” He was the Syrian archaeologist beheaded by the Muslim fanatics of the Islamic State, their reward for his devoting his professional life to preserving and studying the ancient (and Pagan) city of Palmyra.

On the first of September, the BBC displayed before-and-after satellite images of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra. Now you see it, now you don’t.

Responding to the Islamic State’s campaign of destruction against Pagan holy sites, blogger Galina Kraskova writes,

We are horrified, and rightly so, by the human rights violations this filth commits, but we should be equally horrified, if not more so, by the destruction of ancient spaces and places of worship. The destruction of a place like Palmyra, isn’t just the destruction of an ancient building, it’s an attack on the future and what it might be, what it can become. It’s a severing of any link with a pre-Islamic past, and likewise a severing of possibilities for the future. In blowing up the Temple of Ba’al Shamin and the Temple of Bel, they’re damning future generations and that is an attack far more long lasting in its impact, than simply the loss, however grievous it might be, of an antique site.

She offers some suggestions about what to do, both on the “outer” and the “inner” planes, and warns that militant monotheism comes in various disguies (let us not forget the non-theistic mono-ideologies as well).

And for background on Ba’al Shamin and Bel, see this post by Tess Dawson.

If there is a blessing to be gathered out of the ashes of the wanton acts of evil Daesh [the Islamic State] has done here, it is that polytheists are gathering together, protesting in solidarity. I hope and I pray that for every temple they threaten, and for every mine they plant in these dusty, dry, decaying ruins, seven more living, new shrines or temples will spring up. As great as our fury is, we may feel drawn to hurl curses upon the heads of those who would threaten these sacred places. I do not say “do not curse them”—by all means, if you feel moved to do so, be my guest—but I firmly think that there are more important things that need doing first and foremost.

Read the rest. These horrid actions should remind us that if IS could get us, they would treat us contemporary Pagans just the way that they treated the Yezidis.

Khalid al-Asaad and the War on Pagan Idolatry

Wouter Hanegraaff, professsor of Western esotericism at the University of Amsterdam, has written a moving blog post on larger implications of the death of Khalid al-Asaad, the Syrian archaeologist recently beheaded by the Muslim fighters of the so-called Islamic State. (He was a Muslim too, of course.)

We are told that Khaled Asaad was murdered for the crime of “overseeing ‘idols’ in the ancient city” and “attending ‘infidel’ conferences as Syrian representative”. This makes him one of the most recent casualties in a culture war that has been raging for thousands of years: that of exclusive monotheism against its mortal enemy, “pagan idolatry”. We should not delude ourselves: historically, our “own” dominant Western culture has not been on Khaled Asaad’s side but overwhelmingly on the side of his murderers. The idea that paganism and idolatry is the ultimate abomination that must be rooted out and destroyed, along with anybody who practices or sympathizes with it, goes to the heart of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic identity. And moreover, (pace Peter Gay c.s.) it goes to the heart of Enlightenment rationalism as well, which inherited the Protestant view of paganism and idolatry.

Read it all. For the news story, here is the New York Times version.

The ‘Pentecostal Drift’ and Modern Paganism

Religion blogger Peter Berger, melding articles from  The Tablet (Roman Catholic) and The Christian Century (mainline Protestant) notes “the major demographic shift in world Christianity—the fact that more Christians now live in the Global South: Asia, Africa, Latin America—than in the old Christian homelands of Europe and North America.”

With this shift goes huge growth in Pentecostal Christianity—Protestant churches emphasizing ecstatic worship and the “gifts of the Holy Spirit,” such as speaking in tongues and faith-healing. (The modern Pentecostal movement began in Los Angeles in 1906—the same month as the great San Francisco earthquake and fire. Some of them see a connection.)

In 1970 Pentecostals were 5% of world Christians; today the figure is 25%! 80% of Christian converts in Asia are Pentecostal! I’m not quite clear how this arithmetic is worked out, but the Christian Century story asserts that one of twelve people alive today is Pentecostal! Not surprisingly, the [recent Pentecostal World Conference] in Kuala Lumpur was “young, vibrant and confident”. No stepping around quietly so as not to offend Muslim sensitivities!

There is, for example, major competition between (often Pentecostal) Christians and Muslims for conversions in sub-Saharan Africa. Sometimes it is bloody—see the recent news from Nigeria and the Central African Republic, for example. Some conflicts that are not religious on the surface become divided on religious lines.

So what is the Pagan angle? For one, Pentecostal Christians (and many Muslims) see the world as a scene of spiritual warfare. (See, for instance, “Saudi Arabia’s War on Witchcraft.”) Both groups battle demons and “demonic” practitioners.  Consequently, followers of traditional animist/polythestic religions as well as new Pagans are going to continue to be targeted.

If you are reading this, chances are that you live in a culture where the notions of religious freedom and individual religious choice have at least some weight. But from a global perspective, isn’t that a minority view — no matter how many interfaith congresses and parliaments there are?

I am all for religious freedom, but much of the world has a very limited idea as to what that means.

Those Wacky Desert Monotheists

Two news items from the noisiest and most explosive of the desert monotheisms:

1. In Malaysia, Muslim men wearing silk is a sign of the apocalypse. (There is a connection here to the reason that there is no Muslim liturgical music—except for that of the Sufis, and they are heretics.)

2. Also, a fatwa from the UAE: Muslims are not allowed to go to Mars. Not that it’s possible anyway — there are huge psychological and physiological issues to be dealt with — but if it were, Muslims could not do it, these imams say.

It must be tough to be a Muslim science-fiction writer.

Model T Religion

A hat tip to Wren at The Witches’ Voice, who posted on Facebook a news item about a parliamentarian in Kuwait, Abdulrahman Al-Jeeran, who is upset about the sale of non-Islamic statuary in Kuwaiti gift shops.

He revealed that statues representing gods believed by non-Muslim pagan worshippers during the primitive era are commonly seen at various shopping malls across the country.

He is not against freedom of religion, however, as he explained in this brain-twisting statement:

He explained that he was not trying to restrict the society to believing only one religion; however, he stressed that God Almighty commands human beings to accept faith without any alternative. He further stressed that issuing such a ban will protect future generations from deviating from the path of faith

Or as Henry Ford said c. 1922 about the Ford Model T car, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”