What Is Wrong with Large-Scale Ritual?

Maypole procession at Colorado’s Beltania festival, 2011. (Photo by Robin Vinehall.)

When it comes to large-scale ritual, the traditional Wiccan circle does not scale up well. It was made for a small-group mystery religion, where twelve or thirteen people really is the maximum.1)OK, maybe up to twenty or so, but that is more than enough, especially if they are skyclad and all waving athames.

That Wiccan circle, as far as I can tell, was based on the magic circle of the ceremonial magician, designed to hold one, maybe two, possibly three individuals—but usually just one. And as many teachers will tell you, the magician’s circle was supposed to give the Bad Stuff out, whereas the Witches’ circle is supposed to keep the Good Stuff in.

But like a balloon that can be inflated only so far before it pops, the magic circle seems to lose cohesion when it grows too big. Its fabric tears, and, for all I know, the Good Stuff leaks out.

It may still worth with large groups as a way for a maximum number of people to have a good look at some theatrical event happening in the center. Make a son et lumière production out of calling the Quarters—that helps when you have a large outdoor gathering.

On the negative side, I have attended large rituals where people brought folding chairs to sit in because they knew that they would wait a long time for anything to happen—for the oracular priest to make it around to where they sat, for instance. It was deathly dull.

Last month at the Heartland festival, held at a 160-acre site with a network of internal gravel roads, I saw a small procession passing ahead of one of the main evening rituals. I perked up at that, but the participants were more like camp criers: “Come to the ritual.”

No no no no no. The procession should BE the ritual—for most people. That is when you bring the gods out of the temple and take them down the street. It’s interactive, and it involves the bodies of the participants. Let everyone join in! Consider what is done in India or in Catholic countries and urban neighborhoods on certain saints’ days.2)Saints, gods, what’s the difference. We are trying to raise energy.

Instead of the procession being a warm-up act, I modestly suggested to two members of the Sacred Experience Committee (in other words, the ritual producers), it should be the Main Event. Idols! Musicians! Costumes!

If a more conventional ritual follows, that’s fine, but don’t expect everyone to come. But bring the procession past their campsite and entice them to join it because it is loud, colorful, and physical.

I remember one New Mexico festival in the late 1980s where the rituals were pretty good—maybe because the group was not too huge. But then one evening a handfasting was announced, and the campers spontaneously grabbed torches and lanterns and drums and flutes and processed behind the officiants to the site—and there was more “juice” in that procession than in the official circle-style ritual.

I’ve attended a few Pueblo Indian rituals since my dad used to drag me down to Zuni when I was three, and I have noticed something: The tribes don’t expect everyone to participate. The specialists—the appropriate religious society or priesthood—will perform both the hidden parts and the public parts—dances and so on. Many people will just be spectators. The important thing is that the ritual is performed for everyone’s benefit, whether they pay close attention or are off seated on an adobe wall eating watermelon or chatting up a potential romantic partner.

Likewise the old-time Pagans had used processions as a major large-group activity. Sometimes they ended, for example, at a sacrificial altar, and then the specialists took over. (Everyone ate later.) They did not make everyone sit in rows inside a temple—most activity took place outside the temple. Making you stand or sit around indoors while the specialists do their thing is the Christians’ mistake.3)Yes, the liturgical churches—Orthodox, Catholic, fancy Anglican—will give you visualization exercises etc. to do during the service, and there are postural changes—sitting, standing, kneeling—in some churches, but it is not what I would call movement.

Right now, we are in the middle of summer festival season in the US and elsewhere. Tell me what you see. Are people getting away from the “Let’s just make a big ol’ circle and call the Quarters” model? There has to be something that works better.

Notes   [ + ]

1. OK, maybe up to twenty or so, but that is more than enough, especially if they are skyclad and all waving athames.
2. Saints, gods, what’s the difference. We are trying to raise energy.
3. Yes, the liturgical churches—Orthodox, Catholic, fancy Anglican—will give you visualization exercises etc. to do during the service, and there are postural changes—sitting, standing, kneeling—in some churches, but it is not what I would call movement.

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.

The BBC Interviews Iceland Heathens

You can download this episode (27 minutes) of the BBC’s Heart and Soul program on the Heathens of Iceland:

Priestess at Icelandic blot (BBC).

Floating in a hot spring, snow falling from the night sky, John Laurenson meets Teresa Drofn. A 25-year-old Heathen, Teresa describes her return to the religion of her Viking forebears as a renewal of a unique spiritual relationship with nature.

A millennium after it was banned in exchange for Christianity, John explores why Icelanders are returning to the faith. At a ‘blot’, or sacred ceremony John hears a priestess read aloud from the Eddas, an ancient Icelandic text serving as scripture for the new heathens of Europe. In the old days at a ‘blot’, there’d be animal, even human sacrifices. Today they share in traditional Viking food, horse and whale, sheep’s head, puffin pâté and rotten shark.

Visiting the site of a newly planned Heathen temple John meets high priest Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson. Hilmar has presided over hundreds of weddings and seen his own congregation increase six-fold within a single decade. This new Heathen house of worship, the first in a thousand years, will be aligned with the sun’s path and burrowed deep into a hill near the city’s airport.

Not mentioned: a conversation with a Lutheran bishop who claims not to be concerned with the rise of traditional Norse Paganism because (a) the movement is “very small” and (b) they are sort of proto-Christian anyway, as shown, for example, by their abandonment of animal sacrifice.

New Pagan Temple in Latvia

Photo: Ugis Nastevi?s / www.ugis.info

A new Pagan (Dievturi) temple has been built in Latvia, according to this article (in Latvian). Relying on Google Translate, I read,

Crowded opening event alongside Latvian pagan exile pagan representatives and sanctuary creation of the people involved was also attended by other ancient white dievest?bas common to both the Latvian and Lithuanian and Belarus, as well as the folklore group “curbs”, “Werewolves”, “Delve”, ” boat, “” torque “and” P?rkonieši “.

“Monasteries and environmental objects layout vision developed by the pagan organization working group Valda Celma lead. Building architect is Ainars Markvarts, sculptor – J?nis Karlovs, room design authors – Andrejs Broks and Egons Garkl?vs, the costs incurred by the operator Dagnis ??kur, “reveals the organization’s representatives.

Lokstene temple keeper of the Latvian Dievturu Sadraudze that combines ancient white dievest?bas successors contemporary Latvian.

Sources tell me that the temple is on an island in the Daugava River. “Operator” Dagnis ??kur is a businessman who owns a group of bakeries and who paid for the temple. That is very traditional, if you think about it.

I Lived in Magic: A Video Biography of Oberon Zell

Produced and directed by Danny Yourd (Animal Studio), this meditative interview with Oberon Zell (co-founder of the Church of All Worlds and the man who put “Neo-Pagan” into the American religious vocabulary in the 1970s) is a valuable piece of American Pagan history. (It can also be viewed at the Vimeo site.)

Interspersed with video clips from the 1970s, 1980s, and on to the present — including the quixotic New Guinea mermaid quest — it pivots on his relationship with his life partner, the late Morning Glory Zell. (Their lives are also examined in John Sulak’s  The Wizard and the Witch: Seven Decades of Counterculture, Magick & Paganism, which might be the best inside look at the American Pagan scene ever written.)

Oberon reflects on his life, on his loss of Morning Glory, but he is not giving up. “Don’t let it die,” were among her last words, and so the grey-haired wizard carries on. I know that he will do so until he is gone, and something like the mythic cry of Merlin is heard in the redwoods of California.

Survey: Pagan Spirituality in Resilience

I am passing this survey information on from a colleague:

My name is David Christy, I am currently a Ph.D. student in the Pastoral Counseling department at Loyola University Maryland. Several years ago I participated in a series of conversations at Pantheacon focused on the needs of the Pagan community. One of the most pressing needs identified was for increased understanding of our community among mental health professionals. As most of you probably know studies of religion and spirituality have been picking up steam the field of psychology. However, few researchers are looking at non-Abrahamic traditions and issues. I’m trying to change that, and I hope you will help me.

I am currently conducting a study that examines the role of spirituality in resilience. I am especially interested in reaching out to the Pagan community since we are so underrepresented in the research literature (despite the fact that we’re the second fasted growing religious group in the US). Please consider taking this survey and boosting the signal by sharing it with others in your communities.

Participation involves responding to a number of forms, checklists, and questionnaires relating to your experience, knowledge, attitudes, and behavior, as well as providing non-identifying demographic information. These instruments include attitudinal surveys, activity checklists, and self-report measures. It should take approximately 30 minutes to complete all the measures. If you are interested in participating either click on the link below or copy and paste it into a web browser. Please also feel free to share the link to this study.

https://loyola.co1.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_bQrcCnJIHm1ScF7

If you have any questions or concerns about this study, please contact me at the address listed below. This study was approved by the Institutional Review Board at Loyola University Maryland. You may contact the IRB at 410-617-2004.

David Christy, M.Div.
Primary Investigator
Department of Pastoral Counseling
Loyola University Maryland
8890 McGaw Road, Suite 280
Columbia, MD 20145
dchristy@loyola.edu

CFP: 2017 AAR Contemporary Pagan Studies Group

All the calls for the 2017 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion are now online. The meeting itself will be held 18–21 November in Boston.

The Pagan studies theme is “Witch Hunts: Rhetorical, Historical and Contemporary.”

The term “witch hunt” is used as a rhetorical strategy in contemporary political discourses, and yet there have been and are actual hunts for witches past and present. The Contemporary Pagan Studies Unit invites papers on a variety of topics, using various methodologies, exploring rhetorical, historical, and contemporary “witch hunts.” The following suggested topics are not exclusive:

• The historical persecution of people as “witches,” both in Salem, Massachusetts, other places in the United States, and elsewhere.

• Contemporary persecution of people as “witches” in Sub-Saharan Africa.

• Sites of representation or memorialization of witch hunts, for example, Salem, Massachusetts, and Vardo, Norway.

• The mythologizing of witch hunts, witchcraft persecution, and/or negative images of the “witch.”

• The hunt for “witches” as antagonists to the “true’” faith or as disruptors of good social order.

• Tensions and contrasts between witchcraft-as-malefic and witchcraft-as-Paganism.

The Pagan-Esoteric Complex: Mapping Intersecting Milieus.
Despite the considerable overlaps that exist between contemporary Paganism and Western esotericism, there have been no conscious efforts to bring scholars in these two fields together around intersecting research interests. To amend this situation, the Western Esotericism Unit and the Contemporary Pagan Studies Unit invite papers that deal with one of the following three intersections:

• Intersecting milieus of practitioners (e.g., shared spaces and material cultures, shared practices, overlapping group memberships).

• Intersecting identity discourses (e.g., the formation of identities around tropes such as “magic vs. religion”, “Pagan vs. Christian”, or “tradition vs. modern”).

• Intersecting histories and genealogies (e.g., the roots of esotericism in the mnemohistory of Paganism, and the roots of contemporary Pagan practice in nineteenth-century esotericism).

We are particularly interested in papers that focus on mapping contemporary milieus, but historical and conceptual papers are also welcome.

• Pagan and “pagan” Musics.
The Contemporary Pagan Studies Unit and the Music and Religion Unit are co-sponsoring a session that would document, compare, and theorize the different uses of the term “Pagan,” to either describe music associated with a set of religious or spiritual cultures and practices or the ways in which “pagan” was used as a term of exoticization of art and popular musics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We welcome a variety of approaches and methodologies. Some suggestions for topics might include: Contemporary Pagan musical traditions and chants, use of music in ritual, Pagan musicians and festivals, or “pagan” as signifier or marketing term for exotic or non-Western musics. We also welcome submissions on any topic in contemporary Pagan studies outside of these suggested session themes.

For complete information, visit the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group’s website.

CFP: Irish Network for the Study of Esotericism and Paganism

(Extended) DEADLINE APPROACHING

In association with the Study of Religions Department, University College Cork

To be held on Friday, 31st March 2017

We are pleased to invite scholars to take part in the launch and first workshop of the Irish Network for the Study of Esotericism and Paganism (INSEP), a multidisciplinary research network for scholars working on any aspect of Esotericism (historical or contemporary) or Contemporary Paganism that relates to the Irish context. Its mission is to provide a forum for networking and collaboration among scholars who are based in Ireland and those based abroad who have research interests in the subject areas of esotericism and contemporary Paganism as they relate to Ireland. A general goal of the network is to establish a forum for academics — whether established researchers, postgraduate students, early career researchers or independent scholars — to communicate with each other, share information on relevant conferences and other events, and to promote interdisciplinary collaboration among those researching in the areas of Irish esotericism and Pagan Studies. The Irish Network for the Study of Esotericism and Paganism is a Regional Network of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism: http://www.esswe.org/Regional

The INSEP invites papers and contributions on the subject of esotericism and Contemporary Paganism that relate to the Irish context, as well as the study of Contemporary Paganism and Western Esotericism in general, including areas such as:

• Esotericism, political change and social movements
• Ethnography and Western Esotericism
• Contemporary Pagan Studies in Ireland and/or international connections
• Media representations
• The notion of Celtic Spirituality
• Theoretical frameworks/changing paradigms in the academic study of religions

Call for papers: Please submit your proposal in the form of a title and an abstract (max. 250 words), stating institutional affiliation (or independent scholar) to Dr Jenny Butler: j.butler[at]ucc.ie by Friday 13th January 2017. Please put ‘INSEP Proposal’ in the subject line.