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].

Thinking How the Tarot Smuggled Paganism to the Present

In my twenties, the Tarot was about the most “occult” thing around that I could bring out in public settings. I learned to read the cards semi-competently and had some adventures thereby. When I made it through an evening of reading for casual strangers in a nightclub, I figured that I was probably at my pinnacle.1)I told a woman that she was pregnant althought it did not show. I was right—she already knew.

Then I moved into other things more and more, including other types of divination. 2)For some good short essays on divination, read John Michael Greer on “The Speech of the Stars” and “Foundations of Magical Practice: Divination.” I did write a little on the history of the Tarot, then pretty much shelved my cards.3)They are now unshelved, however. At one point I had thought of collecting Tarot decks — that was right about when the number of decks exploded! From the short list (Marseille, Waite-Smith, Crowley’s Thoth deck, Palladini’s Aquarian Tarot, and few others), we went to practically a “Tarot Deck of the Week.” U.S. Games Systems has a few. “The Undersea Tarot,” anyone?

Some months back, I was reading something that Thorn Mooney had written on Tarot, maybe her Tarot Skeptic blog. We see each other at long intervals; otherwise, it’s email, so I wrote and asked her what historical books on Tarot she would recommend. One was out of my price range.4)It might as well have been published by Brill. The other was The History of the Occult Tarot by Roanld Decker and Michael Dummett.

I bought the book. I read through 200-plus pages of Rosicrucians, Freemasons, ceremonial magicians, astrologers, Western Qabbalists, etc.5)Overlapping categories, yes. trying to force the Tarot to mesh with these other systems, such as the Hebrew alphabet. If it did not mesh, they hammered on it until some sort of fit was achieved, as in A. E. Waite’s switching of the Strength and Judgement cards to fit his scheme.

It all seemed part of Western esotericism’s ongoing demand for a system Where Everything Fits Together and Corresponds with Everything Else — a demand that seems informed by a quasi-monotheistic or Platonic outlook.

But what if it will not all fit together? The Tarot deck itself is a mashup. You have the four symbolic elements, which are also social groups, as favored in the Indo-European tradition:6)Other  cultures get along with three, five, or whatever. Air/spades/swords/aristocracy; Fire/wands/clubs/farmers; Earth/pentacles/diamonds/merchants & craftsmen; Water/cups/hearts/priesthood.7)If you follow George Dumézil’s “trifunctional hypothesis”, you might think of this as 3 + 1, with merchants being the 1 split of from class 3, the commoners.

Built on top of that is an upper story derived from “the Pagan dream of the Renaissance,” to borrow the title of Joscelyn Godwin’s excellent book on “the almost untold story of how the rediscovery of the pagan [sic], mythological imagination during the Renaissance brought a profound transformation to European culture.”

As Decker and Dummett write in their section on Tarot-writer Eden Gray, her interpretation of Tarot symbolism was “based not on occult fantasy, but on themes well known to art historians.”8)Still she could not stop trying to glue on some “Cabalism, astrology, and numerology.” Art historians have more to offer here than do correspondence-obsessed magicians, I suggest.

Consider the observations of William Lindsay Gresham, who wrote a preface to one editing of Charles Williams’ Tarot-based novel The Greater Trumps and created his own Tarot-influenced noir novel, Nightmare Alley. He wrote,

The Tarot is not a mnemonic device for a set doctrime, it would seem, but a philosophical slide-rule on which the individual can work his own metaphysical and religious equations.

So forget the Hebrew alphabetic correspondences. Think instead of the Tarot as the product of some (probably aristocratic and/or clerical) creative dreamers living in (most likely) northern Italy in the 15th century. They were not Pagan as such, but they might have been what we could call “Pagan re-enactors,” trying intellectually and artistically to reinhabit the world of Greco-Roman Paganism.

They took artistic and philosophical themes of their time and grafted them onto a pre-existing card game. Among the pages of this “book” the old gods and archetypes snuggled in for a journey of five or six centuries.

Notes   [ + ]

1. I told a woman that she was pregnant althought it did not show. I was right—she already knew.
2. For some good short essays on divination, read John Michael Greer on “The Speech of the Stars” and “Foundations of Magical Practice: Divination.”
3. They are now unshelved, however.
4. It might as well have been published by Brill.
5. Overlapping categories, yes.
6. Other  cultures get along with three, five, or whatever.
7. If you follow George Dumézil’s “trifunctional hypothesis”, you might think of this as 3 + 1, with merchants being the 1 split of from class 3, the commoners.
8. Still she could not stop trying to glue on some “Cabalism, astrology, and numerology.”

Sex with Ghosts, Vengeful Mummies, etc.

At The Hairpin, A Q&A with author, photographer, and ossuary expert Paul Koudounaris.

Two quotes:

Back in grad school I was known as the Fox Mulder of the art history department. Everyone else was working on Rembrandt and I was looking at woodblock prints of witches. . . .

If you consider Psycho, the one thing that makes Norman Bates absolutely unfit to be a member of human society is that he has his mother mummified and dresses her in clothes. That what marked him as a lunatic. But back in 1700 in Sicily that would have marked him as the paradigm of a loving son. At that point death was not a boundary, it was just a transition and the dead still had a roll to play.

I have my own ossuary on the mantel, but it is for birds and small mammals. It started with the discovery of a sharp-shinned hawk “in kit form” by the driveway when M. and I moved into this house.

The Daily Grail.

Is This Ancient Image an Etruscan Mother Goddess?

Etruscan image of woman giving birth

Image from Discovery,.com

Archaeologists have found an ancient Etruscan pottery fragment that appears to be the oldest-known image of a woman giving birth. The piece of a large pottery vessel might be 2,600 years old.

The Etruscan civilization dominated northern Italy before being eventually absorbed by Rome. They used Greek letters to write their non-Indo-European language, so as a result, we know sort of how it sounded, but not what the words meant—beyond some lists of kings and things of that nature.

 The image show the head and shoulders of a baby emerging from a mother. Portrayed with her face in profile and a long ponytail running down her back, the woman has her knees and one arm raised.

The image could be the earliest representation of childbirth in western art, according to Phil Perkins, professor of archaeology at the Open University, in Milton Keynes, England.

Some scholars want to see it as a goddess rather than a woman. Regardless, you will probably be able to buy a reproduction in the Sacred Source catalog in a year or two.

(Via Caroline Tully.)