“The World is Very Different from a Pagan Perspective”

How do you explain it them?

A couple of days I sat down with an interviewer who had read an old essay of mine, “The Hunter’s Eucharist,” also published as “The Nature of the Hunt.” (It  appeared along with works by writers more articulate than I in A Hunter’s Heart: Honest Essays on Blood Sport, edited by David Petersen, one of the best nature writers out there.

When I wrote it in the early 1990s, I was maybe more sure of how to talk about the universe than I am now. At least, that is what I ended telling the interviewer, giving him the old story about how the American anthropologist Irving Hallowell, after learning that in the Ojibwe language stones are grammatically animated (treated as alive), asked a tribal elder, “Are all stones alive.” The man thought a moment and replied, “Some are.”

(Or maybe they are experienced as alive some of the time, depending on many things—that is me talking, not Hallowell.)

This interviewer was all right—not capital-P Pagan, but someone who had thought about nature, hunting, and spirituality quite a bit. To be  honest, “spirituality” is not a term that I fully comprehend, but I have to use it here.

The more I live, the more complexity I sense in the seen and unseen universe. This makes it harder and harder to talk to monotheists, who think that we merely replace the True God with a set of inferior replacements but otherwise think and worship much as they do.

At the Pagan Square blog portal, Guz diZerega has started a series of posts called “Viewing the World through Pagan Eyes.” He puts the communication problem this way

Christian-derived views see the world as a collection of things initially created and ordered by God. Secularists accepting this distinction replace God with predictable laws. There is a deep distinction between human subjectivity, and the objective nature of everything else. Some secular scientists accept the dichotomy but reject consciousness as a fundamental property of reality, hoping to reduce all subjectivity to impersonal objective processes. The ‘illusion’ of mind is a side effect of determinism, and not an active part of reality.

A Pagan outlook implies what we call subjectivity and objectivity both exist ‘all the way down.’ People can be studied as if they were simply objects and there is an element of awareness in even the simplest phenomena, but reality includes both. This view is not unique to Pagans, some physicists share it, for example. But it is rarely treated seriously in many other sciences, particularly the social sciences. The social sciences usually incorporate the distinction between people and the rest of the world or, alternatively, seeks to understand us using the same ‘objective’ approaches used to understand all else.

I took the title of this post from Gus’s first post, and I am looking forward to reading them all. We need to realize how different we are.

 

Christians Attacking Pagan Temples — Now It’s Brazil

Pomba Gira, whose divine role in Candomblé is something like Aphrodite’s (Wikipedia).

Reading Galina Krasskova’s blog a few days ago, I was surprised to see the headlines “One can always expect a monotheist to behave according to type,” and “A Candomble priest martyred for Jesus.”1)Shouldn’t that read, “Martyred by Followers of Jesus”? But the text clarifies it: “Álisson stood fast in devotion to the Orixa and was butchered in the name of Jesus.”

Candomblé is the most West African of the Spiritist religions in Brazil. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Brazil’s sugar plantations brought in more African slaves than anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. Because of the size of the plantations and the lax oversight by stretched-thin Catholic clergy, the Brazilian slaves more easily retained their traditions than did those in mostly Protestant North America.2)Whereas a “big” American tobacco or cotton plantation might have had dozens of slaves, a big Brazilian sugar plantation might well have had hundreds.

Most of us might think of Brazil as a largely Catholic country with other interesting things going on: the vegetalista churches organizes around ayahuasca/hoasca, Candomblé and its more Europeanized cousin Umbanda,  and even a fledgling Wiccan movement. But the growth of evangelical Protestant churches is changing the mix, as this Washington Post story explains:

Candomblé survived centuries of slavery, but the quasi-respectability it has gained in recent decades is now under concentrated attack from radical Evangelical Christians, a growing force in Catholic Brazil, who regard it as the devil’s work and its priests and priestesses as little more than neighborhood witches.

Tactics range from propaganda blitzkriegs launched on blogs and YouTube videos to threats, violence and expulsions from drug gangs. Afro-Brazilian religious leaders and sympathizers are fighting back in court. A low-intensity war is being fought for Brazilian souls. . . .

Last year, Rio prosecutors launched a civil action to require Google to remove videos attacking Afro-Brazilian religions from YouTube. A judge ruled against them, writing that Afro-Brazilian religions could not be considered true religions because they lack a written text, a hierarchical structure and a god.

This article (in Portuguese) explains how worshipers were attacked at one temple and how the priestess was forced to destroy images of the gods at gunpoint. There is video at the link.

This is 2017 Rio de Janeiro, not late 4th-century Alexandria or Antioch. But it’s all the same story. As Krasscova comments, “A monotheist is a monotheist wherever you go.”

In the floating world of the Internet, Afro-Brazilian religion is more popular than ever. I sent the links above to a friend who has lived in Brazil (she has a PhD in Luso-Brazilian literature), who writes on the religion, and who herself is a Pagan Witch.

She replied, “[This is] weird because so many more people here [USA] and elsewhere are getting involved in Candomble, etc. For example, now when I Google Pomba-Gira, there are more than 5,000 sites dedicated to her. In my day, nobody had even heard of her around here.”

Maybe there’s Tumblr Candomblé, and then there is the kind that brings Jesus-loving gangsters to your door.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Shouldn’t that read, “Martyred by Followers of Jesus”? But the text clarifies it: “Álisson stood fast in devotion to the Orixa and was butchered in the name of Jesus.”
2. Whereas a “big” American tobacco or cotton plantation might have had dozens of slaves, a big Brazilian sugar plantation might well have had hundreds.

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

The Eagles of Candlemas, continued

Diana Miller, director of the Raptor Center in Pueblo

Raptor center director Diana Miller with a female golden eagle.

The first part is here.

As I wrote earlier this week, M. and I celebrated Candlemas by going to Eagle Days down at the state park by Pueblo Reservoir.  (Chamber of Commerce types want you to say “Lake Pueblo.”)

Scheduling a festival around raptors is a little iffy; you can expect sandhill cranes, for instance, to show up on time for their festival, but eagles?

So the director of the local raptor-rehabilitation center and her volunteers always show up with plenty of “education birds,” those being birds whose injuries or some cases habituation to humans keeps them from being released into the wild.

M. and I are volunteers too, in that our work as “wildlife transporters” for Colorado Parks & Wildlife often means bringing in hawks, owls, and vultures to the center. Once in a while, we get to release one as our reward. (The survival rate for injured raptors, unfortunately, is not too high.)

We caught part of the U.S. Air Force Academy falconers’ demonstration, an Indian pow-wow dance group’s eagle dance, looked at the birds. We had seen one golden eagle on the drive to the lake, and Diana said a certain spot farther down the Arkansas River might have some bald eagles, but I had another plan that had worked before, which involved driving upstream, into the state wildlife area, and then hiking with spotting scope and tripod to an overlook.

There, at the edge of the ice (the lake being half-frozen), was a black dot, which at 20x quickly resolved into a bald eagle, just hanging out.

It was not my spirit bird, nor did it bring me a message. It was just an eagle doing eagle stuff, another inhabitant of the upper Arkansas River.

It’s funny how we have to have a special day, with costumes, handouts, museum exhibits, captive birds, pizza, and cookies just to celebrate letting the wild be wild (and the wheel of the year), but that is how we roll. And if it build connections, I am all for it.

I care less and less for fancy metaphysics, dazzling Neoplatonic pyramids, recycled Theosophy, and all of that. I like my Paganism close to the ground. I know that that puts me at odds with all the One God/One Prophet/One Book people out there as well, but I gave up on monotheism many decades ago because it never told me how to live alongside the eagle.

‘Non-Christian’ License Plate Prompts Oklahoma Lawsuit

An Oklahoma court has cleared the way for Methodist clergyman Keith Cressman to sue the state over his objection to  imagery on that state’s license plate.

The new license plates carry a photo of a statue called “Prayer for Rain,” of an Apache man shooting an arrow into the sky.

His 2011 lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City seeks a court order allowing him either to cover up the image on his plates or to get a personalized plate for the same cost as a standard license plate.

“Mr. Cressman’s (lawsuit) states a plausible compelled speech claim,” the appellate judges wrote Tuesday in a 39-page decision, reversing Judge Joe Heaton’s dismissal of the lawsuit. “He has alleged sufficient facts to suggest that the ‘Sacred Rain Arrow’ image on the standard Oklahoma license plate conveys a particularized message that others are likely to understand and to which he objects.”

Oklahoma has used American Indian imagery on license plates before, but something about this one evidently pushed the Rev. Cressman’s buttons.

Sigh. Maybe they should make a plain black and white plate for militant monotheists.

“Sheikhs against shakes”


Nine years ago I wrote a post about Islamist reaction against popular Middle Eastern singers such as Haifa Wehbe. For some reason, I kept working in references to Sappho.

The process continues. Now a court in the new, improved Islamist Egypt has ordered al-Tet, a television channel devoted to belly dancing, shut down.

The channel was also accused of airing advertisements that “arouse viewers,” sell sexual-enhancement products and promote matchmaking, according to the court’s statement.

According to [Baleegh] Hamdy, the court ruling was not based on accurate evidence. “The judge was supposed to check the facts present in the lawyer’s allegations.”

There is not much the court can do about the the owners’ YouTube channel, however.

Starting Over as a Virgin (Or Else)

When I was a teenager, I remember hearing some slightly older female friends cracking up over the line, “Let’s go to California and start over again as virgins.”

Only it should be “Toronto,” not “California,” the reason being that you do not want your Muslim husband to beat you.

Lina, 20, is originally from Afghanistan and isn’t surprised the surgery is now available in Canada.

“My friend heard that it was going on in Saudi Arabia because people fear their husbands,” she said.

“If she doesn’t get it done, then they are going to find out that she wasn’t pure on the wedding night, but if she does get the surgery done, they could find out that she wasn’t pure and got this surgery in secret, which would be very bad.”

File under “Desert Monotheisms.”

Bollywood versus Desert Monotheism

A discussion (with lots of music and dancing) about why Bollywood movies are a devastating weapon against the more radical desert-father monotheisms.

There is some deeper resonance that [these movies] have, which is why people want them. . . . Young people in the Middle East are just lapping up Bollywood.

As I said earlier, Aphrodite will not be denied.  Fight fire with hotness.

Aphrodite Will Not Be Denied (2)

On the heels of the “cartoon jihad,” singer Deeyah’s new video may be the next excuse for rioting.Deeyah

Muslim pop singer Deeyah has irked the Muslim world with her provocative new music video that shows her stripping off a burka to reveal her bikini-clad body.

In the clash of civilizations, “fight fire with hotness,” says one quoted blogger.

But the video’s not all about booty-shaking your way to freedom of expression. The video reportedly features other Muslim and Middle Eastern women who have fought for women’s rights. There are women, throughout the video, pictured removing strips of tape from their mouths.

She was born in Norway, but that country’s radical Muslim community made life so uncomfortable for her that she moved to the United Kingdom. Death threats continue.

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.

I had thought that Haifa Wehbe was “the Muslim Madonna.” But I can’t keep up with American pop stars, let alone those from elsewhere.

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