It’s Late October — Who Can Keep Up with the News?

psst it's halloweenThere is more Pagan-related stuff popping up in the news and publishing world than usual right now. I wonder why. So here are some highlights:

• Gwendolyn Reece is a university librarian, blogger (Diary of an Occult Librarian), and scholar — one recent publication, “Impediments to Practice in Contemporary Paganism,” appeared in the most recent issue of The Pomegranate. So it made sense for the communications and marketing office at her employer, American University in Washington, DC, to go to her as their in-house expert on all things Halloween-ish.

• The phrase “post-Christian Europe” has become a journalistic cliché. So a writer for The Week imagines what a post-Christian and pagan [sic] world might look like.

So, could we go back to paganism? This is more than an idle question. Our era is still — much more than we care to admit — very much defined by Christian ideals, which — much more than we care to admit — were very much defined in opposition to pagan ideals. Looking at the pagan worldviews that once ruled Europe should give us some insight into the West today, and, perhaps, its future.

The article is free from much knowledge of actual contemporary Paganism outside of Iceland. But he does make the point that sacrifice was key to ancient Paganism, even though nowadays it is euphemized or just plain considered icky

• There is a type of book that I call “I go among the Witches.” Mostly I associate these with the 1970s, such as Susan Roberts’ Witches U.S.A. (1971), Hans Holzer’s The New Pagans (1973 but now on Kindle!), and the queen of them all, Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon (original publication 1979).

A new entry in this genre is Alex Mar’s Witches of America. In a review titled “Eat, Prey, Learn Magic,” Rhyd Wildermuth gives it two thumbs down.

Much touted by the internet press–but met with muted reservation by most witches, her book offers a sordidly pornographic and self-aggrandising narrative disguised as an elucidating look into the way witchcraft is practised in the United States.  Belonging alongside a 1980’s issue of National Geographic (we’ll get to the pendulous breasts in a bit), exploitative British-tourist narratives, and freak-documentary, Mar’s book tells the tale of her search for authentic witchcraft in the most ‘extreme’ of American Pagan experiences.

• Want to sample Alex Mar’s book for yourself? Check this excerpt in New York magazine: “The Powerful, Unlikely Appeal of Witchcraft — Even for a Skeptic.”

That’s what this is like, the embarrassing wide-openness that witchcraft requires: a movement or voice or improv class, in which the actor is expected, required by her work, to throw herself all the way in. To make a flailing mess of herself as the only route to truer performance.

‘Cause her readers  understand the thea-tuh. Or as others say, “Fake it ’till you make it.” Nothing about deity in this excerpt, however.

Pagans Rebuild after the Sockeye Fire

As a volunteer firefighter who also has had to evacuate myself three times in ten years because of forest fires, I am pretty accustomed to media coverage of such catastrophic events.

This one from Channel 2 in Anchorage is pretty normal : “One thing left standing after Willow wildfire: an outhouse.” And yet it is about a Pagan retreat center. So the “news” to me is that this particular loss and rebuilding is treated as unexceptional, and the Pagans come across as everyday Alaskans, not as weirdos.

About that outhouse — maybe it survived because it was geometrically simple and did not catch embers. Or maybe the fire just swirled around it.

What is Your Spirit Animal (Internet Version)?

A piece in The Atlantic takes note of the proliferation of online quizzes devoted to helping you find your “spirit animal.” Sadly, it does not really fulfill the promise of its subtitle: “How did the concept of the spiritual guide leap from Native American tradition to Internet irony? With the help of Tumblr, the Times, and Samuel L. Jackson.” But it’s still a fun read. Pizza? I had no idea.

There are, after all, so many spirit animal options out there, across so many spirit animal categories! If you take the Internet as your spiritual guide, your spirit animal could be another person (Elizabeth Warren, Jennifer Lawrence, Lana del Rey, Stevie Nicks, Bea Arthur), a fake person (Ron Swanson, Nick Miller, Rayanne Graff, Sansa Stark, Liz Lemon), or a fake semi-person (Lisa Simpson). It could be a food (the pizza, the fried green tomato grilled cheese sandwich, the epic Chipotle burrito you had for lunch the other day). It could be an actual animal (the dolphin, the corgi, the sloth, the Geico camel). It could be a Disney princess. It could be Grumpy Cat. It could be science. It could be whiskey.

“Good Witches” at the Alchemical Bar

In Brooklyn, says the New York Times, “real-life good witches” are selling herbal cocktails and “celebrating all things magical.”

Ms. Ayales’s best-selling formulas are Love Handles, a tonic said to help blast fat with ginger, Himalayan pink salt, green coffee bean and a rain forest tree berry called cha de bugre, and Lucid Dreaming, a pungent cocktail of kava, ashwagandha, rose and passionflower that addresses anxiety.

Although let me say, as someone married to an herbalist, that herbal medicine works but it works slowly, and one drink served up by your “alchemical baristas” is not going to do the job.


The Myth of Halloween Sadism

Myth in the popular sense, that is to say, an urban legend, says sociologist Joel Best, who has been studying the razor-blade-in-the-apple and similar stories for decades.

Visit his website and click the tab for “Halloween Sadism.”

Halloween sadism is best seen as a contemporary legend (sometimes called an urban legend) (Best and Horiuchi 1985, Grider 1984, Ellis 1994). That is, it is a story that is told as true, even though there may be little or no evidence that the events in the story ever occurred. Contemporary legends are ways we express anxiety. Note that concerns about Halloween tend to be particularly acute in years when some sort of terrible recent crime has heightened public fears.

Worth a read. One root of the legend may be a related tale of nasty people heating pennies in skillets and then tossing them to begging children.

‘Cosmos’ Misrepresents Giordano Bruno

Neil Degrasse Tyson’s remake of Cosmos tries to remake Giordano Bruno as a martyr of modern science, but he was nothing of the kind.

He was a lot more of an occultist. Even The Daily Beast gets it.

As Discover magazine’s Corey Powell pointed out, the philosophers of the 16th century weren’t anything like scientists in the modern sense. Bruno, for instance, was a “pandeist,” which is the belief that God had transformed himself into all matter and ceased to exist as a distinct entity in himself. He believed in all sort of magic and spirits, and extrapolated those views far beyond his ideas about the infinity of the universe. In contrast to contemporaries who drew more modest conclusions from their similar ideas, Bruno agitated for an elaborate counter-theology, and was (unlike the poor, humble outcast portrayed in Cosmos) supported by powerful royal benefactors. The church didn’t even have a position on whether the Earth orbited the sun, and didn’t bring it up at Bruno’s trial. While the early-modern religious persecution certainly can’t be denied, Bruno was killed because he flamboyantly denied basic tenets of the Catholic faith, not because religious authorities were out to suppress all “freedom of thought.”

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.

1971: Witches in Bellbottoms, Talking Heads

Here is a 1971 documentary from the BBC that is supposed to be about witches. But at the time it was made, no one was making much effort to sort out the new Pagan Witches, anthropological and folkloric witches, and Satanic witches of the Church of Satan variety. So what you get is all of them! Plus talking heads — academics, clergy, exorcists . . .

Like so many of the paperback “I go among the witches” books of the time, the filmmakers interview a few of the most public Pagans, such as Doreen Valiente (who should get equal billing with Gerald Gardner in creating Wicca), Alex and Maxine Sanders, and others. But they quickly run out of interview subjects — there were not too many in Britain back then — so they start skipping around: a famous murder case with a possible (folk) witchcraft connection, desecration of graveyards, the evil grip of Satanism, and so forth, to fill up their 49 minutes.

I write about this period in Chapter 4 of Her Hidden Children: “The Playboy and the Witch: Wicca and Popular Culture.” Looking at a number of paperback books on the American scene, I created a rough spreadsheet of places visited and people interviewed. It was interesting how much overlap there was. There seemed to be a “witchcraft trail” that the writers followed — you could imagine it starting at the Warlock Shop/Magical Child store in New York City and ending at Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey’s house in San Francisco.

What is missing at this moment from the outsiders’ view is an overall sense of the new Paganism, at least until Hans Holzer’s 1972 book, The New Pagans. Even the participants themselves were just coming to the view that Wiccans, for instance, might share a Pagan outlook with Druids — the new Druids, that is. We often forget how deliberately isolated those covens were (“We can’t circle with Coven XYZ because it would mean sharing our secrets!” Really, I heard stuff like that in the 1970s.)

Serious academic study of the new Paganism(s) would not really get rolling until the 1980s. For instance, during the 1970s Robert Ellwood, Jr. at the University of Southern California was writing Alternative Altars: Unconventional and Eastern Spirituality in America (1979), which would offer some theoretical models applicable to the new Paganism, but he did not incorporate it into his discussion in that book.

Welcome, visitors from The Wild Hunt. Look around a bit.

(Thanks to Renna in Denver for the link.)

Pentagram Pizza: It’s Revived Again

pentagrampizza¶ At Pagan Square, Rebecca Buchanan rounds up children’s books featuring Norse gods and heroes.

Bright Spiral is an online comic about occult initiation. Trippy and complex.

¶ “Chilled-out multitasking hipster psychics don’t seem so eccentric anymore” and “We are in the middle of an occult revival.” Again.

Green Egg is back as a print magazine. And don’t forget the “Best of” anthology, for which I wrote a bunch of chapter intros.

Paganism Coming in from the Cold?

British SF writer Liz Williams explores the social position of “paganism” (yeah, the Brits can’t find the shift key) at The Guardian and asks if we are coming in from the cold.

In essence, Pagans are muddling through, what with our tolerance for eccentricity, etc.

(And if we are, who is “Control“?)