Imbolc on Ice

Look south from Bennett Avenue, the bi-level main street of Cripple Creek, Colorado, across Poverty Gulch (once lined by the saloons and brothels of Myers Avenue), and there it sits, like the citadel of the Ice King.

At 9,494 feet (2,894 m.), the early February winds are still cutting and only the lengthening day suggests any turn toward spring. M. and I, plus my Pagan cousin and her partner, fortified ourselves with food and drink in a crowded restaurant and then zipped up all zippers and headed for the Ice Castle at our designated 6 p.m. entrance time.[1]The restaurant’s Facebook page said that they were so busy with Ice Castle visitors that they were not taking reservations, but we snagged a table by showing up at 4:30, ahead of the dinner … Continue reading

This castle is a commercial venture. I had seen earlier versions in the ski town of Silverthorne in the 20-teens,and thought it would be cool-no-pun-intended to visit, but I was always on my way to or from somewhere else. Now we had our chance at Candlemas season. I like it when the Sacred Wheel matches up with popular activities, even when the coincidence is not planned.

Daytime must be different, but at night the Ice Castle hits the same sort of Underworld vibe that I get sometimes in Taos at PASEO, the fall art festival, when clumps of dark-clad people walk dim Spanish colonial streets until suddenly illuminated by the flare of a flaming gate or a giant robot or an art work projected onto high adobe walls. (See “The Robot God and the Underworld  Gate.”)

So it was sort of like that but without the writhing silent-rave dancers. There was feasting and good conversation and then a chance to stock my memory with images and sensations.

Cripple Creek is a small place, compared to its height c. 1900 when there were three railroads plus street cars and belching smokestacks. I walked Marco the dog around a little, strolling past some of the buildings I visited during a long-ago bout of ghost-hunting, back before the casinos came in. Those visits produced a little book, Ghost Tales of Cripple Creek, which in terms of copies sold is probably my biggest commercial success. Out of print now, but I see it is still on Amazon. [2]The photo was taken from the driveway of astrologer Linda Goodman’s house.

Notes

Notes
1 The restaurant’s Facebook page said that they were so busy with Ice Castle visitors that they were not taking reservations, but we snagged a table by showing up at 4:30, ahead of the dinner rush.
2 The photo was taken from the driveway of astrologer Linda Goodman’s house.

Helen Cornish on Witchcraft Drumming and Chanting

The article “Musicking and Soundscapes amongst Magical-Religious Witches Community and Ritual Practices” by Helen Cornish is available as a free download from Religions journal.

Abstract

Drumming and chanting are core practices in modern magical-religious Witchcraft in the absence of unifying texts or standardized rituals. Song and musicality contribute towards self-creation and community making. However, Nature Religions and alternate spiritualities are seldom included in surveys of religious musicking or soundscapes. This article considers musicality in earlier publications on modern Witchcraft, as well as the author’s fieldwork with magical-religious Witches in the UK, to show the valuable contribution they make to discsusions on religious belonging and the sensorium through song, music, percussion, and soundscapes.

Keywords:

musickingsoundscapesmagical-religious Witchcraftcontemporary Paganismritualsensoriumhistoricity

The Creeping Menace of ‘Paganism’

Dear god! Nature religion! (Illustration by Katie Martin, Getty Images).

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple and (visiting at) Harvard Divinity School is like someone who steps in dog shit, comes back indoors, and keeps wondering where the smell is coming from.

“We are all children of the same God,” he announces in a essay in The Atlantic  (link goes to archived version).

And “we” are opposed to [small-p] “paganism,” which is about power, nature-worship, and wealth-worship. “Hug a tree or a dollar bill, and the pagan in you shines through.”[1]For Wolpe the exemplar of this “paganism” is, of course, Donald Trump, that notorious tree-hugger. But it’s an election year.

The rabbi’s essay was not the first to make that point — as I will point out — but it hit at the right time and place, and suddenly contemporary Pagans were asking, “What’ s that smell?”

In  her letter to The Atlantic, anthropologist and Pagan studies scholar Sabina Magliocco, “long-time reader of and subscriber to The Atlantic,” lambasted the piece as “misinformed and distorts both historical and contemporary understandings of paganisms in ways that are profoundly damaging to both Indigenous and revived religions.”

Pagan blogger John Halstead observes correctly that the rabbi is not talking about actual people, today’s Pagans, but about this bogeyman lurking in the shadows, one described in 1937 by the historial Arnold Toynbee as “the new paganism.”

Wolpe equates nature with the most violent and base behavior. His fear, like that of so many other monotheists, is that, in the absence of a transcendental ideal of Goodness, we will all turn into savages raping and eating each other.

Halstead’s blog links to other responses to Wolpe’s article. I will mention just two more. The Wild Hunt has also covered this issue, as linked above.

At Harvard’s Program for the Evolution of Spirituality, Dan McKanan and Giovanna Parmigiani posted an open letter to David Wolpe, siscussing how his approach illustrates how hard it is to discuss religion when “many religions define themselves in opposition to other religions.”

One way to do this is to frame the critiques in the most culturally specific manner possible. Judaism did not emerge in response to “paganism” writ large; it emerged in response to the specific religious and political practices of immediately adjacent cultures. But again and again, Wolpe misses the chance to be specific in his critique. Instead, he identifies Donald Trump, Elon Musk, communism, fascism, Friedrich Nietzsche, the QAnon Shaman, and Peter Singer as diverse manifestations of a single phenomenon that he calls “pagan.” This universalizing gesture is especially problematic given the inherent diversity of Paganism.

Later, Dr Parmigiani noted on Facebook that “We heard back from David Wolpe and he appears to be willing to have a conversation with us and the Pagan community at HDS, once the semester starts.”

Holli Emore, executive director of Cherry Hill Seminary, had less luck, telling The Wild Hunt that she had invited Wolpe “to join me one day soon, perhaps on a Zoom call, to chat about how we can better understand each other.”

The rabbi responded, “I have been deluged with advocacies, requests for dialogue and so forth. The article did not and does not address the current pagan [sic] communities nor was it intended to.”

That makes me feel so much better. As she put it, “While his message to me was cordial, it is clear that he has no intention of revisiting his lack of research or redressing the feelings of the many he has slighted.”

The problem is defining Paganism. We have a long history of small-p paganism meaning “outside any [monotheistic] religion.”  This is the straw man pummeled by Wolpe and others, such as the British journalist Louise Perry, whose article “We Are Repaganizing” appeared only two months earlier in the interdenominational Christian magazine First Things.[2]The story about the babies’ bones sounds like the old anti-Catholic folklore that there are babies buried under every convent.

Her borrowed definition of “paganism” ias not “an interest in entrails or in praying to Jupiter. Rather, [but]  a fundamentally different outlook on the world, and on the sacred.”

But Christianity takes a perverse attitude toward status and puts that perversity at the heart of the theology. “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” is a baffling and alarming claim to anyone from a society untouched by the strangeness of the Jesus movement.

And that led to converting Pagans by the sword, but we won’t go there. Look over here at the cathedral! And furthermore, as the legalization of abortion proves, “the Western world has arguably always remained more pagan than Christian. In some ways Christianity has been more of a veneer than a substantial reality.”[3]She quotes from Steven Smith’s Pagans and Christians in the City.

The Christian writer Rod Dreher, with two bestsellers to his name (The Benedict Option and Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents), is also promoting the view that there was no morality in the ancient world (outside, perhaps, the imperial province of Judea) until Christianity arrived.[4]Sorry, Confucius. Sorry, Socrates.

The book I finished last night, Pagan America, will be out from Regnery in March. The author, John Daniel Davidson, is not really talking about Wiccans and suchlike (though they do get significant mention), as much as he is talking about how the kinds of evils that permeated Greco-Roman culture, and that were eliminated by the triumph of Christianity, are coming roaring back now that Christianity has gone into abeyance in the West

Where does that leave today’s capital-P Pagans? You cannot accept Wolpe’s sidestepping of the issue because there are other singers in the choir, like John Daniel Davidson, who are apparently are happy to mix the two, jumping from “pagan = irreligious” to “Your gods are demons.”

(Davidson apparently wants to junk this silly “freedom of religion” idea and put the government firmly on the side of Christianity — his book’s subtitle is “The Decline of Christianity and the Coming Dark Age.”)

So we cannot get away with offering a pagan/Pagan (polytheist-animist) distinction. The cultural tides are moving. The secular talkers of both the right and left have moved from “Pagans don’t exist” to “they are bunch of silly New Agers” to the point of  “viewing with concern.” Pagan readers, don’t be surprised to be asked for your position on sacrificing babies.

Notes

Notes
1 For Wolpe the exemplar of this “paganism” is, of course, Donald Trump, that notorious tree-hugger. But it’s an election year.
2 The story about the babies’ bones sounds like the old anti-Catholic folklore that there are babies buried under every convent.
3 She quotes from Steven Smith’s Pagans and Christians in the City.
4 Sorry, Confucius. Sorry, Socrates.

The Pagans, the Unicorns, and the Serial Killer

I have complained before about the relative lack of good American Pagan biography and autobiography. John Sulak’s biography of Oberon Zell (b. 1942) and his partner Morning Glory (1948–2014), The Wizard and the Witch was one of the exceptions.[1]Yes, Morning Glory either invented or co-invented the term “polyamory,” and she was aware of creating a Greek-Latin hybrid. While it was first published in 2014, Sulak and Oberon subsequently revised and enlarged it, splitting it into two volumes.  The link goes to volume 1.

It’s also a history of the American Pagan movement in the 1970s-1990s particularly, with a West Coast emphasis. In the early 1980s, the Zells lived at Greenfield Ranch, a ranch in the Coast Range near Ukiah, Calif., that had been divided into acreages for back-to-the-landers and, yes, cannabis-growers, which meant the level of paranoia was fairly high. The ranch was raided by drug agents at least once, as I recall.

My friend the Pagan songwriter Gwydion Pendderwen lived there, and M. and I visited several times between 1978 and his passing in 1982. I have not been back since. Obviously much has changed.

In the late 1970s the Zells got an opportunity to live at Greenfield Ranch as caretakers for an absenteee Pagan parcel-owner, and there they practiced a documented but neglected ancient technique for turning new-born Angora billy goats into true unicorns. These went on the Rennaissance Faire circuit—later under the big top.

As Oberon would say, they were hoping to influence “kids who saw the Unicorn and would recognize it for what it was—not a fantasy creature made of moonbeams, just a small white animal with its own kind of beauty and heart and horn . . . . Those kids would make the connections and see that Magkick was possible and then go on to create their own contribution to that unique world-view [and] make their live whatever they want it to be.” [2]John G. Sulak, The Wizard and the Witch: An Oral History of Oberon Zell and Morning Glory (Woodbury, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 2014) 180–81.

But something darker was afoot. Another Greenfield Ranch resident helped out with showing the unicorns at Renn Faires, etc., so much so that he was sometimes called “Unicorn Man.”

Morning Glory and Angora goat “unicorns.”

His name was Leonard Lake, and he was a serial killer, although he had not really started on his murderous path at that time but apparently was planning it. There is plenty about him online, but my introduction to his story came through Episode 1 of the Trace of the Devastation podcast, a true-crime series about serial killers of the 1980s-90s in the California Gold Rush country.

In that episode, “The Unicorn Man,” you will hear Oberon Zell give his own honest self-appraisal of how he and others were fooled by Lake, whom they took to be just another back-to-the-lander, albeit with a more ex-military outlook.

Anyone can be fooled some of the time. Consider this a footnote to Sulak and Zell’s books.

Notes

Notes
1 Yes, Morning Glory either invented or co-invented the term “polyamory,” and she was aware of creating a Greek-Latin hybrid.
2 John G. Sulak, The Wizard and the Witch: An Oral History of Oberon Zell and Morning Glory (Woodbury, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 2014) 180–81.

Now They Are Stealing Pagan Artisans’ Designs

“Did you find an awesome statue of Odin with a price too good to be true?” begins a recent entry at the Wyrd Designs blog.

The article focuses on a Ukrainian Pagan artist who sells on Etsy. Chinese copyists mass-produced his carved wooden statues in resin, along with others. (Those are the genuine works shown.)

But look at the stats on the knock-off site: the Norse statues in the last month sold 3 thousand units (cumulatively of the Odin, Thor, Freya or Loki statues), and they had over 14,000 shares across social media. It’s unclear if they’re only counting the 19 days of November so far, or if that’s sales in the last 30 days. If those stats are real (and not some engineered gimmick designed to get you to purchase), they sold around $60,000 -$69,000 gross profit (varying on if someone purchased one statue, or multiples where a bundle discount comes into play). Even taking into consideration they’d have out of pocket costs to manufacture the cheap knock offs, they’re probably pocketing between $40,000 -$55,000 in net profit in just one month (based on a typical 60-80% profit margins for mass manufactured goods). In a year if you had steady sustained sales, that’s around $480

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,000 – $660,000 net profit. Near half a million dollars, or more.. Money like that would be revolutionary for artists serving our community.

Three different business are selling those knock-offs on Amazon, for starters, plus they are on other e-commerce sites as well.

There is no immediate cure except to look carefully at the site and try to determine if you are dealing with a real artisan or not. The article suggests some ways of checking, particularly on Amazon, but you cannot always tell if an item was made in some Chinese knick-knack factory or not.

Some sites will have a section on their page dedicated to intellectual property concerns, like TEMU, which gives you the impression that they’re trying to operate ethically. But it’s set dressing, there’s no real accountability process in place at Temu. As an aside, Etsy tends to have solid options from legitimate artisans, though occasionally some knock-offs might infiltrate the service.

Oberon Zell has had to quash illegal reproductions of his Milennial Gaia statue a number of times, as I recall. This was back when he and his late wife, Morning Glory, operated their own crafts business, which now has new management.

If you want a blast from the past, I mentioned one of those Chinese “we’ll make anything” companies, King-Max Products, in this 2007 blog post about Pagan images at a New Age wholesale trade fair.

In a weird way, all this counterfeiting is a sign that Pagan images are becoming more recognizable and marketable, so I suppose you could feel kind of good about that.

Lifting up Love & Light in North Carolina

A mug with the Pagan triple goddess symbol is pictured at Quantum Soul in Carrboro on Sunday 

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A mug with the Pagan triple goddess symbol is pictured at Quantum Soul in Carrboro on Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023.

The student newspaper at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, does the annual Pagans-and-witches story but reaches out a little farther to interview a graduate student working in that area.

“There are lots of different ways that people celebrate this time of year and engage in this time of year and the best thing to do to learn more is actually to just ask people,” Mary Hamner, a Religious Studies graduate student studying paganism and witchcraft at UNC, said.

* * * *

According to Hamner, it is very difficult to estimate pagan and witch populations in the U.S., but assumptions can be made based on statistics concerning witchcraft-related book sales or the number of posts under certain hashtags on social media.

She cautioned people from making the mistake of thinking pagans and witches are “fringe groups,” or a group with extreme views, especially in the South.

“The South has this really entrenched history in Protestant Christianity in particular,” she said. “That doesn’t erase the fact that it is a really diverse region and many other religious groups have been here the whole time just because they are not the ones routinely who get the microphone handed to them.”

Now if we could get the Daily Tar Heel  to follow  Pomegranate style and capitalize “Pagan” while lowercasing “religious studies,” which is not a proper noun unless you are talking about the UNC Department of Religious Studies.

Go Light the Lantern at Your Door

Go light the lantern at your door
and honor those who’ve gone before.
The worlds that part us now are twain
for Hallow’s Eve is here again.

The westering sun grows pale and wan.
The day grows dark

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, the nights draw long.
The autumn leaves are ticked with fire;
fruit hangs ripe upon the brier.

Witch Like Me

It is late October, so naturally the best time to publicize Diana Helmuth’s The Witching Year: A Memoir of Earnest Fumbling Through Modern Witchcraft.

It looks to me like she took A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (2008) and Wiccan-ized it.

Instead of avoid cloth of mixed fibers (no polyester-cotton blend for him) or seeking an adulterer to stone, Helmuth decides to celebrate the feast of Lammas:

I realized this while reading a book, flipping through some pages, and I go, oh crap. I don’t have the sacred knife. I don’t have an altar. I don’t have anything.

Like Jacobs, she was a “none” who wanted to venture among the savages — actual believers, as she told National Public Radio interviewer Mallory Yu:

I wanted to be thought of as intelligent. So I rejected most religion and most spirituality throughout most of my life.

And then during COVID, and in general, as I got older, the idea of a self-directed religion that promised me a way to have some control over the universe – I think increasingly we find ourselves facing things that really affect us deeply that we have very little control over – right? – climate change, housing prices, health insurance bills, pandemics, who’s going to become the president?

And here’s this religion – this spirituality – that says, you can have an effect on these things that feel so much bigger than you. You just need a couple of candles and some willpower.

There is a long tradition of “among the savages” writing in America. As a young reporter in the 1980s I briefly met a tall but baby-faced guy who, having graduated from Colorado College, as I recall, went back to high school and passed himself off as a senior in order to write about high school from the inside. (At least one female writer has done that too.)

Maybe the best example is a book that was a classic of the Civil Rights Era but would probably never get published now, although it is still in print after sixty years:  John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1961). A white writer from Texas, Griffin, who lived from 1920–1980, decided that the only way he could write about African-American life was to temporarily become one. His experiment was underwritten by the black-oriented magazine Sepia in return for first publication rights. From Wikipedia:

In late 1959, John Howard Griffin went to a friend’s house in New Orleans, Louisiana. Once there, under the care of a dermatologist, Griffin underwent a regimen of large oral doses of the anti-vitiligo drug methoxsalen, and spent up to 15 hours daily under an ultraviolet lamp for about a week. He was given regular blood tests to ensure that he was not suffering liver damage. The darkening of his skin was not perfect

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, so he touched it up with stain. He shaved his head bald to hide his straight brown hair. Satisfied that he could pass as an African-American, Griffin began a six-week journey in the South.

But even Griffin was following the footsteps of another white journalist who made a similar journey eleven years earlier.

So there is a pretty good way to get a book: pass yourself off as a member of Group X and write about it. If you do in graduate school, it is ethnography; otherwise, creative nonfiction.

Magic in the United States, a new podcast by Heather Freeman of U. of North Carolina-Charlotte, has just launched. As one of her panel of advisors, I have had the opportunity to listen to several episodes. They are well-organized and not t00 long (usually under 30 minutes). So far I have heard about the famous murder of a Pennsylvania Dutch pow-wow doctor and the beginnings of Spiritualism — it’s a wide-reaching show.

Here is the 3-minute trailer, if you need more convincing..

The local alt-weekly, Queen City Nerve, interviewed her about the project:

Magic can mean different things to different people. For many, it’s reserved for those fantastical worlds seen on screen, but for others, it’s not so far removed. For Heather Freeman, its proximity to our world is something she seeks to explore in her podcast Magic in the United States: 400 Years of Magical Beliefs, Practices, and Cultural Conflicts.

The podcast, which explores spiritual and mysterious concepts throughout the country starting from the 1600s to the present day, launched on Oct. 24, with a new episode airing every Tuesday

“It really spans the gamut. So I started putting together a proposal for a podcast series to do this project looking at magic in the United States,” she recalled. “There’s tons of podcasts about witchcraft

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, about ceremonial magic, and then also about religious practices that get called magic. But historically, calling these practices magic is a racist pejorative.” . . . .

Freeman said exploring why certain practices get called magic while the word “religion” is reserved for more mainstream practices is at the heart of her podcast.

“This question of ‘What is religion?’ is really challenging,” she said. “If most people understand religion as one of these major monotheisms, they’re missing a lot.”

You can find and subscribe to the podcast at its home page or at the usual podcast places.

A Knife in the Woods

Large butcher knife on forest floor.
M. and I went yesterday to check our favorite mushroom grounds. The radar had shown thunderstorms up there earlier in the week

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, but whatever rain fell had soaked right in. Nothing was coming up yet, not even LBMs. [1]The mushroom hunter’s catch-all term: “Little brown mushrooms.” Like “little gray bird” when you are looking for birds.

Stepping into a small clearing, probably part of a 1980s skid trail, I looked down and saw a knife. An eight-inch chef’s knife with a single-bevel (“chisel”) edge, to be precise — Asian-style, so probably Chinese-made. Much like this one.

I had made my offerings just minutes before at a hollow stump. This find seemed definitive. It was like something said, “Sorry, no mushrooms. Would you like a knife?”

It went into M’s pack, and since it was long and sharp we nested it between the pages of Vera Evenson’s Mushrooms of Colorado and the Southern Rocky Mountains. She was OK with taking it home, but she said later that she would rather have had mushrooms.

That is the second time I have found a knife at my feet. The first time was in Teller County, Colorado, east of Florissant, when I was in my mid-twenties. It was the last day of Februrary, consequently, the last day of small-game hunting. No dog then — just me, my old Ford F-100 truck, and Granddad’s shotgun. I didn’t see a rabbit, but walking through the woods I found an antler-handled knife.

A little time later,  I found an aluminum camping cup.

I was new to the Craft then, but I could see a certain pattern here. Would there next be an aluminum camping plate with a pentagram scratched on it?

Well, no. But it was “a moment.”

As for yesterday’s knife, it might have been lost last season by one of the Vietnamese [2]I think. Or other SE Asian. market-hunters recreational mushroom hunters with very large appetites and pillowcases to fill I saw in that area last year.

Whatever it’s origins, I touched up the edge, and M. is slicing vegetables with it now.

Notes

Notes
1 The mushroom hunter’s catch-all term: “Little brown mushrooms.” Like “little gray bird” when you are looking for birds.
2 I think. Or other SE Asian.