The Scholar’s Mistress

scholar's mistress_sm

I learnt a new expression late last year: “the scholar’s mistress.” What it means is the pile of books that accumulate beside the bed, books that you are reading, plan to read, ought to have read, might read again.

At my house, the dog’s kennel does for a nightstand. Note highlighter pen at the ready. Also — right-most pile, lower — a stack of academic journals.

It is time to talk about some of these books—short reviews, quick comments, whatever. Then maybe some of them can move on to their new book-lives, while others can stay there at the bedside longer for re-visiting.

Watch this space.

New Pomegranate Published

Pomegranate web header

Issue 16:2 of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies has now been published online, with print copies coming soon.

The publisher does charge for articles (but try to see if your library can get them), although book reviews are free downloads.

Contents

“Deepening Conversations between Ritual Studies and Pagan Studies”
Michelle Mueller

“Becoming a Virtual Pagan: ‘Conversion’ or Identity Construction?”
James R. Lewis

“Prevalence and Importance of Contemporary Pagan Practices”
Gwendolyn Reece

“The Search for ‘Meaning': Occult Redefinitions and the Internet:
Morandir Armson

“Healing Community: Pagan Cultural Models and Experiences in Seeking Well-Being:
Kimberly D. Kirner

Book reviews by Melissa Harrington, Jason Mankey, Daniel Foor, Christopher Chase, Ronald Hutton, and Sarah Veale.

New Poems by Sappho

Carbonized scroll. (Credit: Salvatore Laporta/AP)

The possibility of deciphering the carbonized papyrus scrolls from the Villa of the Papyri is exciting. One friend hopes that some day an Etruscan/Greek or Etruscan/Latin dictionary will be discovered. (The Etruscan language used Greek letters, but we cannot completely read it, beyond some kings’ names, etc.)

Me, I hope for a complete edition of Sappho’s poetry, with commentaries by some Hellenistic critic.

That has not shown up, but (how did I miss this?) two unknown apparent poems of hers were discovered a couple of years ago in recycled papyrus used as “cartonnage,” a sort of papier-mâché used in Egypt for mummy cases and funerary masks.

In a paper delivered last month at an academic conference (PDF), Dirk Obbink discusses questions of authenticity and text in the two poems. You can find related links at the website of the Reception of Greek Literature 300 BC–AD 800: Traditions of the Fragment Project.

Obbink notes,

The new fragments show conclusively the alternation in book 1 of poems about family and cult, on the one hand, and personal concerns about love on the other. A cycle of poems concerning sea-faring is revealed, centering on the drama of a mercantile family of wine-traders on 7th-century Lesbos. The presence of Dionysus in the trinity of gods in the Pan-Lesbian sanctuary at Mesa on the island is explained, and the whole complex of love, sea-faring, wine, and trade falls neatly into the context of Herodotus’ story (2.135) of how Sappho’s brother Charaxos spent a great deal of money . . . to free his lover the courtesan Rhodopis (aka Doricha), then a slave at Naucratis in Egypt—for which Herodotus claims a pedigree in a poem of Sappho’s. In fragments 5 and 17 and now the ‘Brothers Poem’ we can see the existence of a song type, a prayer for the safe return of the merchant-gone-to-sea (or going). The prayer may rehearse an occasion leading to the performance of a song (as in the ‘Brothers Poem’), or its actual performance in the past or present (as in fragment 5). The prayer for safe return, introduced as a matter of concern, then expands to envisage what such a return would mean for the family—wealth, and an enhanced social position in the community. A further connection with the poems involving Aphrodite (who dominates book 1 but is virtually missing elsewhere) is suggested, since she is also typically invoked in seaside cult as a protectress of sailors (as we can see at the end of fragment 5, perhaps associated with prostitutes and hetair ae frequented by Charaxos).

 

How Halloween Came Back to Derry

A short video (Irish with subtitles; English) describing how a large public Halloween festival in the Northern Irish city of Derry began in a pub in the early 1980s and grew from there.

And while some speakers, including folklorist Jenny Butler, do discuss the ancient festival of Samhain, you will see that the Derry festival was not so much a self-conscious bit of Celtic revival as it was a way for people to step out of “the Troubles” (as the Irish euphemize the 1960s–1980s in Ulster) for one night of the year and be someone else.

You may also note a brief mention of pumpkins — the North American influence is there too.

Was Lugh a Comet?

Here is the trailer for an Irish television “documentary,” (in Irish with English subtitles), “Gods from the Sky,” which argues that celestial events changed ancient Irish religion.

And if that sounds a bit familiar, perhaps you are remembering Immanuel Velikovsky’s (1895–1979) somewhat similar thesis that the planet Venus entered our solar system twice: “Periodic close contacts with a ‘cometary Venus‘  (which had been ejected from Jupiter) had caused the Exodus events (c. 1500 BCE) and Joshua‘s subsequent “sun standing still” (Joshua 10:12 and 13) incident.”

Other planets caused catastrophes on Earth as well, he claimed.

A Billion-Candles Candlemas

By the Sun, Candlemas/Imbolc happened this evening, between 8 and 9 o’clock, Mountain Time.

And I was watching an episode of PBS’ American Experience called “The Big Burn.” Coincidence, I think not. :)

(You can find it streaming on their site.)

Ten minutes in, there must have been smoke in the room or something, because I was having trouble with my eyes.

This was my heritage as a Forest Service brat back then and as a rural volunteer firefighter today. I walked outside afterwards, Her cold white light shining through the pines, still on that knife’s edge of beauty and terror, life in the mountain West.

One of these days I will pass again through Coeur d’Alene, and I will stop at Ed Pulaski’s grave to do a full-blown Pagan/Shinto/neo-shamanic thing with incense, flowers, whiskey, and the rest.

But the way things are going, I might have to wait my turn. Firefighters, I have learned, are a ritualistic bunch.

Looking at Your Polis as a Pagan

A Wiccan email list that I am on recently went through a discussion of teaching “theology” to children. It is one of the perennial questions among contemporary Pagans: teach the kids or let them make up their own minds as adults. Surprisingly, some discussants reported that said adult children-of-Pagans regretted their parents’ hands-off approach.

Perhaps because I am allergic to the word “theology,” I want to look at a different approach. (I cannot speak as a parent, because although that was not the plan, I ended up childless. So it goes.)

Talk of theology reminds me of some of the writings of the 17th-century Puritans, like the ones who founded Massachusetts Bay Colony, who worried that their children would never have the life-changing born-again experience that their parents did in that religiously tumultuous century. And even today among evangelical Protestants, you find teens worried that they have not been authentically “born again,” and so what is wrong with them?

Paganism should spread through experience and art, not theology. The theology comes later, if it comes.

Suppose it were the autumnal equinox — not a powerfully magical time in my experience, but worth noting. Here in my part of southern Colorado, I have a choice between a winery’s harvest festival in Cañon City and Pueblo’s Chile & Frijoles festival, now twenty years old.

Yes, both are commercial creations: the Chile & Frijoles [chile peppers and beans] festival is sponsored by Loaf ‘n Jug, i.e. the Kroger grocery chain, and it was created as part of a economic development-driven rebranding of the old multi-ethnic steel mill city on the Arkansas River. And the winery wants to sell wine.

Paganism is the religion of the tribe or of the polis, and selling stuff is part of what the polis is about. (In reflection, Pueblo counts as a polis, but Cañon City is probably too small — perhaps it is part of the city-state of Pueblo. They are in the same SMA.)

Even though Wicca was designed as a small-scale mystery religion for adults only, one can also bring its outlook to the life of the city. And as Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartzstein write in Urban Primitive, “City spirits are, not surprisingly, quite social creatures, and they love to be acknowledged, so it’s worth your while to learn to speak to them.” You do that, they continue, at the city’s “heart” or strongest location — and, coincidentally, that might well be the place where urban festivities are held!

Get creative. What’s the Pagan take on Mike the Headless Chicken Days, held in May in the little agricultural town of Fruita, Colo.? Or Nederland, Colo.’s Frozen Dead Guy Days, coming up in the March? That one should be easy.

Imagine the kid whose mental construct of Pagan identity includes not just structured ritual but the vendors’ food stalls on Pueblo’s Riverwalk and whatever mix of norteño and classic rock is coming from the bandstand, flavored by the scent of roasting chile peppers by the truckload? Living headless chickens? Well, you have to leave some space for the uncanny.

So it’s not officially Pagan? You can still live it as Pagan.

2015 Pagan Studies Call for Papers Now Online

The Contemporary Pagan Studies Group’s call for papers for the November 2015 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion can now be viewed online.

General instructions for submitting are here. And the deadline is Monday, March 2.

What Does It Mean?

Seeing a human

How to Ruin the Mysteries, or Religion is not Moral

In retrospect, I was lucky that the high priest of my first coven (mid-1970s) was something of a scoundrel. He was always tapping people for money and favors (“Could you fix my truck’s clutch? Oh, you’re a welder? I have some projects . . .”) — all for the good of the Craft, of course.

He was convinced of his own sexual magnetism and was always coming-on to women, in addition to the fact that he and his wife (the coven HPS) were off-and-on “swingers,” as the term was then. I discovered this when I dropped by the covenstead one afternoon and found them having a slightly awkward getting-to-know you conversation with a couple they had met somehow for that purpose. Needless to say, offers were extended to my partner and me, which we did not accept.

He could play members of the coven against each other, but treated us better than “cowans,” against whom any lie or stunt was permissible. Once when an old friend of mine, a professional calligrapher, did a large piece for him in exchange for a promised piece of silver jewelry (he was also a middling silversmith), and said piece of jewelry kept receding into the future, he brushed off my questions with “He’s a cowan, he can wait.” (The guy is still waiting.)

Most of what he said about his past, training, etc. was probably 90 percent bullshit.

And there was other stuff. But — I cannot over-emphasize this — over the three years I was part of that group (before M. and I finally left over something or other), some doors to the Mysteries were opened.

Both he and she could be effective ritualists and magicians. I can recall some intensely spiritually erotic ritual, for instance, that did not involve any swapping of bodily fluids. I was introduced to the entire Craft subculture as it then existed — including some early small hotel-based “cons”— and found a psychic space that only two years before I had not dreamt existed.

So I learned something. I learned the the Craft is a mystery religion, parts of which are not for kids or public view, and that the Mysteries are not about conventional morality. From that I learnt that one can be a good high priestess, let’s say, without being “moral.”

Later, a professor of Eastern religion would explain to me that Asian religious renunciates wore red, orange, or saffron robes to warn people that they were “hot” in a spiritual sense, but also with an echo of the slang term for sexy.

Yeah, religion — the “juice,” not the social organizations — can be sexy. Hindu gurus are notorious for sexual scandals, as are some Zen teachers, Protestant ministers, Catholic priests . . . you could go on.

Morality ought to be filed under Philosophy, not Religion.

An issue that affects both new religions (like various new Paganisms) and scholars of religion is the enormous, often unrecognized, cultural meme that “religion” equals not just a type of monotheism with a Holy Book, but Protestant Christianity in particular.

When I read about a Wiccan “church” that “followed a Christian format, complete with sermons and congregants sitting in rows, and its High Priestess wore a clerical collar similar to what Christian priests and ministers wear,”  I thought, there it is again, the dead hand of Protestantism on the back of your neck.

When a prominent Pagan writer publicized how she had flounced out of a forty-year-old Wiccan organization because it would not issue a statement on her favorite political issue, I thought of religion scholar Russ McCutcheon’s writing about the naive presumption that “religion equals morality [with] a responsibility for securing the fate of the nation-state or cooking up some therapeutic recipe for attaining self-knowledge or happiness’ (from Critics not Caretakers).

Whatever it is that makes the Craft special, I cannot think of a better way to kill it. Is there a little bit of a split here between those who lean, for instance, toward the approach of Apocalyptic Witchcraft and those who apparently would rather be social workers with pentagrams?

Those who seek the Mysteries, be they in the name of Dionysus, Nyx, Odin, Hecate, or whomever, have to understand that the Mysteries come without an official Book of Instructions.

I know, everything is connected and the personal is political. But does turning your position as, let us say, high priestess into a podium for pronouncing ex officio on this political issue or that one lead to a hollowing out of the magical self?

Or if religion is not about morality, then what does your religious position matter?