A New Survey on Pagans’ Political Attitudes

This survey, “Pagan and Heathen Political and Sociall Metrics,”  comes recommended by several scholars whom I know. It is for respondents in the United States and Canada only.

This survey is a means of gathering information about beliefs, behaviors, and demographics from Heathens and Pagans in the United States and Canada. It will ask you questions about aspects of your religious and personal life, and your opinion on hot-button issues. Its results will tell us what Heathens and Pagans have in common across borders, and how different Pagans are within them. For the purposes of this survey, “Pagan” is defined as anyone who practices a form of Paganism and / or identifies as a practitioner of any form of Paganism, and “Heathen” is defined as anyone who practices a form of Heathenry or Asatru or identifies as a practitioner of any form of Heathenry or Asatru.

Warning: A lot of the questions are about race, guns,  and politics, so if you are uncomfortable with slicing and dicing that stuff, don’t go there.

A New Look at “The Golden Bough,” a Book both Loved and Hated

Lots of books, documentaries, etc, purport to tell you the “real story” that academics are “afraid to reveal,”  particularly in history, archaeology, and related fields.

Then there is Sir James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough. In its day, it was academic. Now it is “the book that has single-handedly inflicted the most damage to the understanding of both scholars and the general public.”

Among other things, The Golden Bough contributed much to the idea of “ancient Pagan survivals”  that influenced just about all late-nineteenth and twentieth-century folklore research as well as the grown of conetemporary Paganism.

The high priest of my first coven really wondered at one point if the male leadership should not be decided Rex Nemorensis-style.

Want to know more? Sign up for “Shaking the Tree, Breaking the Bough: The Golden Bough at 100.”

This conference hosted by Drs. Caroline Tully and Stephanie L. Budin under the auspices of the University of Melbourne from Friday, 10 February to Sunday, 12 February 2023 evaluates the continued influence of Sir James G. Frazer and his magnum opus The Golden Bough on the Humanities in modern academia. Talks are 20 minutes/40 minutes (keynote speakers) each, with a short time for Q&A after.

Presentations include “The ‘resurrection’ of Frazer’s dying gods in the ancient Mediterranean mythology: A fresh take on the divine death and resurrection through comparison: the case of Baal, Inanna/Ishtar and Dionysus,” plus “’A Victorian Educated Gentleman’: Frazer and his Golden Bough in Context,” and many others.

Everything available on Zoom. Request a link at Goldenboughconference [att] gmail [daht] com. See full conference program here.

Lakshmi or Yakshi? The Story of a Hindu Idol in Ancient Pompeii

Trade routes from Roman Empire to India

The 1938 excavation of a house in Pompeii produced a statuette that first was believed to be Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity and fertility. Newer reseach says no, but she still is Hindu. Where did she come from?

A podcast interview with art historian Laura Weinstein examines the statuette’s possible backstory.

Wikimedia Commons

The statuette may be a souvenir of a Roman merchant’s voyage(s) to India — or perhaps from a shorter trip to the ancient port of Alexandria (Egypt), where cargos from India were routed to new destinations in the Roman empire.[1]The podcast is available from Apple, Spotify,  Player.fm, and elsewhere. The date is August 11, 2021.

Weinstein published a chapter, “The Indian figurine from Pompeii as an emblem of East-West trade in the Early Roman imperial era,” in the collection Globalization and Transculturality from Antiquity to the Pre-Modern World (Routledge, 2021).[2]Ask your librarian about getting a copy of the chapter.

The map above shows trade routes from the empire to southern Indian in that era. Weinstein mentions a “manual for merchants,” written in Greek, that gave sailing directions from the Red Sea and information about the various Indian ports, the products that could be purchased there, etc.

According to one article — and this is pretty much Weinstein’s view as well — she is not Lakshmi after all.

Originally, the figurine was considered to depict the goddess Lakshmi, a fertility, beauty, and riches goddess venerated by early Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. However, the iconography, particularly the exposed genitals, indicates that the image is more likely to represent a yakshi, a female tree spirit who embodies fertility, or a syncretic rendition of Venus-Sri-Lakshmi from an old trade between Classical Greco-Roman and Indian civilizations.

As for the idol, her location in the house suggests more that she was in storage than in a shrine, so perhaps she was “just a souvenir.”

Notes

Notes
1 The podcast is available from Apple, Spotify,  Player.fm, and elsewhere. The date is August 11, 2021.
2 Ask your librarian about getting a copy of the chapter.

The First Wiccan Book Published in India

A little more than twenty years ago, in the preference to his landmark study of contemporary Pagan Witchcraft, The Triumph of the Moon, the historian Ronald Hutton wrote that “the unique significance of pagan [sic] witchcraft to history is that it is the only religion which England has even given the world.”

Author Rashme Oberoi is second from the left.

It’s true. There is Wicca all over Europe, North America, and parts of South America. Outposts of local, as opposed to expat, Wicca have appeared in south Asia too.

Now comes an announcement of the publication of the first book on Wicca from an Indian publisher, Om Books Internationa, and written by an Indian author, Rashme Oberoi. It is titled Wicca: A Magical Journey with Spells and Rituals.

A Member of Parliament, Dr. Shashi Tharoor, himself an author, praised it: “In her writing, Rashme displays a deep knowledge of the psyche of Wicca, of healing witchcraft and of the exotic practice of spells and magical wizardry. The reader is led through a bewildering maze of incense-filled prose which will assail your senses as though you are physically by her altar.”

According to the publisher, the book “takes you through the practices she has perfected over a period of time.While providing a succinct introduction to the subject, it also creates an awareness about the world of the Wiccan that will help dispel the myth of a witch being ‘evil’ and make people realize that the modern-day witch is engaged in working for the highest good. As much a well-written manual on Wicca as it is a chronicle of a wondrous journey, the book will not only make you discover the hidden Wiccan in you, it will also be an appropriate guiding tool.”

I would like to know more about the “wondrous journey.” Is this really about Wicca-the-magical religion, or is it more about the Wiccan as “service magician,” to use another term that Professor Hutton has tried to popularize as a neutral way to describe sorcerors, shamans, hedge witches, and all manner of folk magical practitioners? Rashme Oberoi is on Facebook here for her Tarot practice, and if I am not mistaken, also works in corporate public relations.

Either way, it says something for Wicca  that it such a book could be published in a nation known for ancient polytheisms. Or is there a novelty factor at work here too?

The Passing of Jim Lewis, Noted Scholar of New Religious Movements

Yep, that’s a well-worn cover.

When I was new to Pagan studies — actually, “Pagan studies” had not even coalesced as a field of study — Jim Lewis’s edited volume Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft (SUNY Press, 1996) was one of my go-to volumes.

I had an essay in it, not something I am proud of, but definitely a product of “fake it till you make it.”[1]It has not been cited often. Once was in a court brief over a prisoners’ rights case.

Jim was there early. Before The Triumph of the Moon, although after Drawing Down the Moon.

As a good scholar of new religious movements, he was out ahead of of the main group, asking “Who are they? Where did they come from? What do they do? Are they friendly?”

Branch Davidians, Satanists, Scientologists, New Pagans, Space Aliens, Neoshamanism, Falung Gong — he was there. His publication record would be enough for six typical professors.

Jim was also known for encouraging younger researchers, particularly during the time he taught. In the early 1970s, he had been a yoga teacher and founded his own short-lived “community” in Tallahassee, Florida, before going entering postgraduate work.

And like many scholars of new religious movements (NRMs), he had a hard time making a living in academia.  Despite the vibrancy and relevance of NRM research, it just does not draw the funding and respect. You’re better off specializing in New Testament studies and writing yet another book about the Apostle Paul, or developing some new slant on gender-and-theology, if you want to be hired.

Born in 1949, Jim died October 11, 2022. I did not learn this until the American Academy of Religion meeting in late November, sadly. He was hugely prolific as an author and editor, but he was also working right up to the end — because he had to.

After some para-academic publishing work, Jim had taught in the University of Wisconsin system for some time but apparently never had a solid position. Then he was hired by the Arctic University of Norway in Tromso, which really is so far north that you lose the Sun for a while. Seasonal affective disorder aside, it seemed like a good gig, and I for one was happy for him. And presumably there would be enough petro-kroner for a pension.

He published several articles in The Pomegranate in those years, with special attetion to the growth of Paganism in nations that collect religious-membership statistics.

But apparently there was a problem in Norway — he had not put in enough years — he could not get a full-time appointment past age 66 — or some such thing. I don’t how this worked, but he ended up at Wuhan University in China, although he was working remotely in 2020, luckily for him.

If you look at his publications from 2018–2021, you will see a lot about Falun Gong, the large, international new religious movement that has been a particular target of the Chinese government.

To be honest, the Chinese government, after a period of general hands-off, has been realy hard on all religions: Tibetan Buddhism, Islam, Chinese Christian groups, ancient Daoist temples, family and clan ancestral shrines — all have been shut down, bulldozed or forced to turn themselves into government billboards.

No rivals to “President Xi Thought” are permitted, it appears.[2]For more, read the Bitter Winter NRMs webzine.

Beyong writing critically about Falun Gong, he tried cutting some corners in order to pad the rèsumès of his new Chinese colleagues. As far as The Pomegranate was concerned, I refused to play along, and he cut all communications.

But whatever he did, I suspect he took the Wuhan gig to make some last good money as a senior scholar for himself and his wife. Which loops me around to where I started, that the study of new religous movements still, after fifty or sixty years, is not taken as seriously in academia as it ought to be — and hence not compensated.

And that is why too that I don’t expect to see any endowed chairs in Pagan studies in my lifetime.

Notes

Notes
1 It has not been cited often. Once was in a court brief over a prisoners’ rights case.
2 For more, read the Bitter Winter NRMs webzine.

Peg Aloi Wraps Up Witchy, Pagan and Occult-themed Films & TV

Alice Englert in You Won’t Be Alone

Pagan film critic/professor Peg Aloi looks at 2022’s offerings and concludes,”This year was a veritable sparkly cornucopia of weird, witchy, wonderful films and TV steeped in occult and pagan imagery and storylines.”

This was number one:

You Won’t Be Alone (2022, dir. Goran Stolevski) This gorgeous film (a Sundance 2022 premiere) set in Eastern Europe in the 19th century is a stunning debut by Australian/Macedonian filmmaker Goran Stolevski. It follows a young woman raised by a witch (drawn from a folklore legend) and the ways she learns about nature and humanity by inhabiting the bodies of different people. It’s a gorgeous exploration of empathy and the possibilities and limits of human existence. With a fine international cast (including Lamb’s Noomi Rapace and Beautiful Creatures’ Alice Englert), lyrical cinematography and a beguiling soundtrack, this was my favorite film of the year. (Full review in The Arts Fuse) (streaming/rental on Prime, AppleTV, Vudu, etc.)

Read more at her Substack.

Witch Dance is a Phenomenon

“Time was,” Minnesota witch Steven Posch wrote in 2016, “here in Paganistan, the Besom Brigade used to show up at the Heart of the Beast May Day Parade, black steeple hats and all, doing our precision broom drills down the middle of Bloomington Avenue.”

A sort of drill team with witches’ brooms popped up in several places in the 2000s; Here is a grainy video from Pantheacon 2008.

I was researching something about Wicca in Germany, and up popped this Witch Dance video. Apparently the belly-dancers got involved, put some shimmy in the besom brigades’ sweeping, and now it’s an international thing. From Germany, here is the Tribal Gypsy Dance troupe:

A few years ago at Nokomis beach in Florida, some pirate flavor:

This year, the Witches of Wasburn, Wisconsin, help celebrate Zombie Days:

And this year in Frenchtown, New Jersey, a plaintive call from the bourgeois bohemians in the YouTube comments:

Hello Tricia. We checked this account but didnt see an email posted by way we could get in touch with you. That said, my husband and I live in Milford NJ. We are throwing a Christmas party and are wondering if you could teach our guests a dance. If so, please let us know your fee. You’re great at teaching groups of people and feel you would make a wonderful addition to the occasion. Please think about it.

I am all for putting your Paganism in the street (or on the beach or Salem Common) where it belongs. But Pagan studies friends, this is waiting for some theoretical lenses!

Back for the Yule Log — Now with Goats!

The Yule goats await their big moment in the 2022 Beulah Yule Log Hunt.

After two years’ hiatus, the Yule Log was hunted again last Sunday in Beulah, Colorado, a small town in the foothills of the Wet Mountains. This hunt is a twentieth-century revival, passed (along with log splinters) from Lake Placid, New York to Palmer Lake, Colorado to Beulah, where the tradition was renewed in 1952. (Photos from 1954 and 1977 here.)

(Here’s a report of M’s and my first Yule log hunt in 2015.)

Diana Miller with a red-tailed hawk from the Raptor Center.

In the introductory program, inevitably, some local clergyman has to make the usual solsticial wordplay between Son and Sun.

That was subtly countered by  my friend Diana, local resident and director of a raptor rehabiitation center, who steps up with a red-tailed hawk on her wrist and delivers an invcation that de-centers humankind in favor of wild animals. (As she did in previous years.)

A huntsman and two companions.

After final instructions from the head huntsman (one of a dozen who serve as guides, referees, and whippers-in for the hunt) the hunters (mostly teens) scramble uphill into the wooded slopes of Pueblo Mountain Park.

Those of following the hunt stroll behind them, and all too soon, there is a shouting and and a trumpet blast from up the ridge.

But what is this sound? “Click click jingle jingle!”

It’s the Yule goats, harnessed to the log, instead of having it pulled down off the mountain only by the huntsmen and whoever else volunteers.

Pulled by goats. Hmm. How long before a Thor-figure joins the huntsmen?

Power Couples of the Paranormal

I know that I have sampled only a few of the many, many paranormal, occult, Pagan, and esoteric podcasts and video channels out there. (Feel free to add your faves in the comments.)

But when  you look at podcasts done by people who are partners in real life, I can think of two sets of contenders: Jessi Leigh and Joe Doyle of the Hellbent Holler YouTube Channel and Greg and Dana Newkirk of Hellier fame, who now have a new podcast, The Haunted Objects. (The former website, not updated since 2020, was The Week in Weird.)

Hellier, a documentary series (two seasons) that compressed several years of the Newkirks’ and their associates’ attempt to find the story behind some mysterious communications:

In 2012, Greg Newkirk received an email from a man calling himself David Christie, who claimed that he and his family were being terrorized by unearthly creatures by night. After exchanging emails, David disappeared. For the next five years, the case only got stranger, as more connections and mysterious emails came in. Then, in 2017, Greg and a team of researchers traveled to rural Kentucky, not knowing what they would uncover, or how deep they would discover the case might go.

Dana Newkirk using a God Helmet in a Hellier episode.

The story was compelling. (I thought Season 2 lagged a bit in the middle, but it finished strong.)  The videography and editing were better than a lot of what you see on ghost-hunting or Bigfoot-hunting TV shows. And it was released in 2020 just before people can to be forced indoors — meaning they could live vicariously through the investigators’ travels in eastern Kentucky. You can stream or download it or get it on Blu-Ray at the site.

It not only had thousands of viewers but has attracted the attention of scholars of Western esotercism and “the weird” in general. For instance,  Rejected Religion podcast host Stephanie Shea explains it to guest Aaron French in this November 2022 episode and earlier devoted to episodes to Hellier and High Strangeness. Here is the first one, from January 2021.

The Newkirks also manage museum of the paranormal, and the Haunted Object podcast builds each episode around a particular item, such as a plank from the Long Island house infamous for the Amityville Horror, leading to a freewheeling and often comic dialog between them and their producer, Connor Randall.

Jessi’s T-shirt proclaims “Make cryptozoologiy dangerous again.”

Meanwhile, Jessi and Joe are out in the woods. The two cryptid-hunters live in a former South Carolina textile-mill town but met when they were both bartending in New Orleans. As Jessi puts it,

I was born and raised in the mountains of western North Carolina, but when my wanderlust took hold I escaped to the Deep South. I spent 10 years in New Orleans, in and out of bars, swamps and graveyards. Eventually I became homesick for the mountains, trees and endless adventure of a darkened wood. It was time to leave the sirens, grime and crime behind. Along with my partner Joe, I moved back to Appalachia and began seeking out the mysteries and legends that still live in the hills we call home. Using the latest gear and equipment, we travel deep into the forests of Appalachia to gather evidence of the weird, strange and supernatural that roams this ancient slice of heaven.

In the spirit of Jessi’s T-shirt, they investigate areas of Bigfoot sightings, Dogman sitings (a sort of upright werewolf), and other mystery beasts.

Their technology includes state-of-the-art night-vision gear, audio recorders, video and still cameras, survival gear, and personal weapons. You could call them “preppers of the paranormal.”

The last is not a question of “What caliber for Dogman?” but rather an honest reponse to the fact they are moving through areas where they could encounter humans who are, let’s say, sort of feral.

Joe and Jessi push their own boundaries, which leads to lines like “Did you hear like a scream?” or “If every night felt like this [eerie], I wouldn’t do this” or “That was not a coyote. That was not a coyote!” (All quotes from “Land Between the Lakes, Part 2: The Search for Dogman Contiues.

Their videos have a respectable number of followers, although not as many as the Newkirks’, and of course they have their own merchandise.

Locales

Greg and Dana: Generally indoors in haunted buildings, sometimes caves, in various states.

Joe and Jessi: Outdoors in forests of the southern Appalachian Mountains (north Georgia), Cumberland Plateau, and the Land Between the Lakes (Tennessee-Kentucky). Generally public land, such as the Chattahochee-Oconee National Forest.

Methodology

Joe and Jessi: Stalking through the woods, investigating ruins, utilizing audio and visual recorders, and utilizing visible and infrared ligjhts at night.

Greg and Dana: Investigations of haunted places and ghost experiences, utiilizing psychic impressions, amplified by technology such as the Estes Method and the God Helmet. Occasional ritual.

Production Values

Greg and Dana: Professional-level video.

Jessi and Joe: DIY level, but getting better all the time. Jessi is their editor.

What I Wish They Would Do

Get expert advice.

In the first season of Hellier, I remember talking the screen as the participants fumbled around seeking some information, “Why don’t you go to the local library and talk to the local history librarian? Even small libraries often have one, and they want to share!”

Later in Season 2 they do just that when researching a vanished restaurant in Kentucky and are amazed that the local library has photos of it. Libaries! Who knew?

Jessi and Joe spend a lot of time with boots on the ground, but I with they could balance that with more research instead, of, for instance, just wandering around old federal government buildings in the Land Between the Lakes and asking, “What was this for? Was it fortified against Dogman?”

Granted, federal agencies often do a poor job of preserving their own institutional history — as a Forest Service brat, I know this.

Also, an experienced hunter or wildlife biologist could offer alternative explanations to “How did these deer bones get here?” or “What made those scratches on the tree?”

Yet even though I sometimes say to the screen, “I bet a black bear did that,” there are times when I have no easy naturalistic explanation for what they encounter — and that is what keeps me coming back.