I got this email last week from a publishing firm that I had never heard of. I did my due diligence — I looked at their website and read an article about them from Publishers Weekly. Apparently their nonfiction business model is to do deep data analysis and see what is trending, then commission books about those things.
Apparently one of those trending things is Paganism. Yeah, I know, surprise surprise.
So I got this letter, and I wonder who else got it too. I’m still chuckling at the first sentence:
I hope this finds you in a joyously supernatural or naturalistic environment. My name is [redacted] and I help manage acquisitions for [name of company], a nonfiction book publisher that is the fastest growing in the world. Given your incredible passion for all that encompasses the pagan realm, with a strong background as a Pagan writer as well, I thought you would be interested in potentially authoring a new book we seek to publish.
I am still trying to sort that out. If I were in a “supernatural environment,” would I be reading email? Wouldn’t I be feasting with the Fairie Queen or something? As for “naturalistic,” that usually a term in art criticism: “closely resembling the object imitated.”1)“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Maybe she meant that I was sitting with my Power Book under the pine trees— a nice image, but not how I work.
Let’s leave aside my “incredible passion” (sweetie, you don’t know me that well) and the inconsistent capitalization of Pagan/pagan. Also, “fastest growing” should be hyphenated. Anyhow, I bet she sent out a batch of these, don’t you?
Thank you, [name redacted], for brightening my week. But I have too much on my plate to write another “Paganism 101” book.
As of Tuesday, it’s Witch Kitsch Month. So if this is the time when you stock up on plastic skulls and manufactured stuffed ravens, hit your local thrift store — it’s a whole lot cheaper than Spirit World or some party store.
Prices are low, low, low — horrifically low.
At Goodwill, I found a simply adorable giant rubber rat (not pictured), which probably will become a geocache in some deserted building. Today I lingered over this coffee cup and a skull-themed nightlight — and this Halloween owl—but opted instead for a little battery-powered three-color strobe light ($1.49), made to be put inside your jack-o-lantern. I see it inside a hanging mask, animal skull, or something else instead.1)Its package was unopened. Some wholesaler probably dumped them because the package said “Requires 2 AA batteries,” whereas the battery holder is sized for AAA batteries. Made in China.
“With Open Arms We Welcomes That Which Would Destroy Us.” Camino de la Placita, Taos, September 2019
Earlier this month, M. and I were in Taos, New Mexico, for what I think was the fifth annual PASEO outdoor art festival. The interesting thing about PASEO is that it happens mostly at night, in a town with a late-medieval street plan that was built for ox carts and is still kind of sparing with streetlights. You spend your time walking in semi-darkness from one pop-up installation to another.
Some installations sound better on the page than they are experienced in person, but here are a couple that worked for me.
At least one year, equinoctial rainstorms lashed the night, but this year the festival was moved earlier in the month, and the weather was good for an Underworld-flavored Pagan-ish art experience.
Above and below:
With Open Arms We Welcomed That Which Would Destroy Us by Christian Ristow of Taos is a sculpture of a seated robot deity. From a distance, it is beautiful and seductive, yet on closer inspection it reveals its true nature. It is not evil; it’s a robot. It has its own directives. And like any god, we created it and gave it its power.
Walking up Civic Plaza (which is actually more of a street and not the plaza), we passed under this flaming arch.
Numinous Eye Arch, with the Robot God in the distance.
The Numinous Eye Arch sculpture is a large steel archway with a looming giant spotlight eye at its apex. It gazes impassively in mysterious stoic surveillance, with a dozen [propane-fueled] torches along its length creating a dome of golden firelight. Some 18 years ago I began to feel a strong urge to create a sort of gateway or portal for people to pass through, beyond which one enters an unfamiliar hallucinatory world and goes on to encounter dangers and challenges emerging from one’s own subconscious. Could be a Gate to Hell or a Gate to Heaven, depending…
Past that and around the corner, more leaping flames, but those were the outdoor fires heating the patio at the Martyrs Steakhouse,1)There is a reason for that name. It is too long to go into here. which we passed, only to re-enter PASEO-space when we encountered a troupe of girl dancers, bedecked in rave-ish electroluminescent hoops and bands.
Taos Un/Connected by Amber Vasquez and Taos Youth Ballet in Taosis a roaming dance performance piece exploring the unique and ever-changing qualities of human relationships. From comfortable friendship or the awkwardness of new love to the isolating “connectedness” that social media can create. Dancers will both speak and dance as they travel in a train of movement.
OK, we’re in artspeak-territory here, but you just let it be and drift with the crowd through the semi-lit alleys and plaza, following the dancers until they finish under the glare of the monumental statue of Padre Martinez2)Northern New Mexico’s one-man Renaissance, and he had only the period from 1821-1846 in which to make his mark. in the main plaza.
If I might venture into UPG territory, moments at PASEO, out on the dark streets, do indeed have an Underworld feel to them. Ryon Gesink must have plugged into that energy. I have visited that place in dreams a time or so, checking on recently deceased family members. The crowds shuffle along, and it is so hard to see, except when there is an occasional brightly lit scene, and those are very rare.3)Or you get flat fluorescent lighting on the way in, which is almost as bad.
I will probably go back. Taos, after all, is where I officially became a Pagan, and it left its mark.
To the great consternation of the Church, over the past 17 years veneration of a Mexican folk saint that personifies death has become the fastest-growing new religious movement in the West. At this point there are no systematic surveys of the precise number of Santa Muerte devotees, but based on 10 years of research in Mexico and the US, we estimate there are some 10 to 12 million followers, with a large majority in Mexico and a significant presence in the United States and Central America. However, the skeletal folk saint, whose name translates into English as both Saint Death and Holy Death, now has followers across the globe, including in the UK, where there are sufficient devotees to support a Facebook group specifically for British followers . . . .
To understand the devotion to death, we must also examine the historical record. Across the Americas, and in particular in Mexico, death deities were prevalent during the pre-Hispanic era prior to colonisation. Many indigenous peoples, such as the Maya and the Aztecs, turned to death gods and goddesses for healing ailments, and also to guarantee safe passage into the underworld.
Yes, devotion to Santa Muerte is huge, and I have heard of some American Anglo Pagans who also participate in her cult, particularly in the Southwest.
El Niño Fidencio (Kid Fidencio), a folk saint of northern Mexico who is frequently channeled by healers.
There are more “folk saints.” One of my graduate-school professors, of partially Mexican ancestry, was fascinated by the cult of El Niño Fidencio, one of several folk saints who emerged from the chaotic years of revolution and civil war in early 20th-century Mexico.
I received word from Amazon that the newest version of my FREE educational Alexa skill, “Caesar’s Ancient World” has been certified. This latest version of the skill includes 280 images of ancient art from almost 100 institutions worldwide for those of you with Alexa-enabled devices with displays like the Echo Show, Echo Spot and FireTV. Of course the voice-only version remains available for those with regular Echos or Echo Dots.
I have redesigned the interface so you can now just ask Caesar what you would like to talk about and he will reply with narrative including sound effects. You can say things like “I want to know more about chariot racing” or “Tell me more about your greatest victory” or “I’m interested in gladiators”. If you can’t think of anything just say “I don’t know” or “I can’t think of anything” and he’ll suggest a topic!
In September, the flow is just a trickle, typical for the season. So I made a little wreath. M. used to make wreaths professionally, woven from grapevines from our backyard at the Cañon City house and filled out with dried flowers. Mine was simple by contrast: a willow branch and some Liatris (blazing star) blossoms. Yet my thanks and best wishes were sincere.
I read an alternative-history novel now and then,1)Robert Harris’ Fatherland remains an all-time favorite. especially those in which the Pagans triumph. For instance, John M. Ford created a 15th-century world, Dragon Waiting: A Masque of History, in which Julian the Philosopher, the last Pagan emperor, did put on his armor before that skirmish with the Persians, and, consequently, made possible a Pagan empire centered on Byzantium — not that they are necessarily the good guys to Western Europeans.2)Bonus: fans of Richard III of England will like this one a lot. There are also vampires.
Another book that I have ordered is The Kingdom of the Wicked, Book One: Rules by Helen Dale, an Australian writer who is also a lawyer and one-time Classics scholar. In an review essay titled “Return of the Pagans,” she writes,3)Law & Liberty describes itself as focused “on the classical liberal tradition of law and political thought and how it shapes a society of free and responsible persons.”
Kingdom of the Wicked is a work of speculative fiction. It takes place in a Roman Empire that’s undergone an industrial revolution. My initial academic training was in classics (I became a lawyer later to pay the bills), so I’m well aware pagan Rome had different cultural values from those now present in the modern, industrialized West.
She says of herself that she “lacks a religious orientation.”
This serves to explain [my] mystification at adherents of both immanent and transcendent religions. We classical liberals really do spend a lot of time asking, “I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” In doing so we forget how rare we are in the population. Minding other people’s morality is deeply human. It turns up everywhere, a cosmic homeopathic joke with only memories of being funny.
The first half of Pagans & Christians in the City is given over to comparative religion. Smith outlines the underlying logic of Roman paganism and emergent (Catholic) Christianity and draws out similarities and differences. He discusses how paganism locates the sacred within the world — it’s an immanent religiosity whereby the divine emerges from the natural environment. Christianity and Islam, by contrast, are instances of transcendent religiosity — they place what is most sacred outside the world, in part because God made the world.
While classicists and scholars of comparative religion appreciate this distinction, it’s not widely known otherwise. For my sins I once spent a couple of years tutoring Latin, losing track of students’ pleading enquiries about what Romans actually believed. That I resorted to suggestions like “read Ovid’s Metamorphoses while stoned” or “go to Japan and get a priest or priestess to explain the significance of The Great Ise Shrine” gives a sense of the magnitude of Smith’s achievement. Without once falling back on theologically similar Shinto (which I’ve pillaged as a novelist and teacher of classics), he takes Roman paganism seriously as a religious tradition on its own terms and renders it real and alive.
In the second half of Pagans & Christians in the City, Smith sets out a bold claim. In short, he argues that paganism never went away. The immanent orientation to the sacred it advances is not only in direct competition with Christian transcendence, but competition between the two orientations continues today — it manifests in the US as “culture wars” — because a number of progressive values comport readily with pagan conceptions of the sacred. This is particularly so when it comes to sex and sexuality. To take two of Smith’s case studies among many: modern liberal democracies have simply abandoned the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim view of same-sex attraction and abortion and substituted the pagan Roman view wholesale.
Where this leads includes a discussion of what happens when monotheism goes wrong: “bigotry, misogyny, vandalism, and what amounts to a war on human sexuality” contrasted with the other extreme: “If, however, you’re one of those fashionable humanists for whom Roman civil religion and civic nationalism seem sophisticated and high-minded, you will learn how those fine ideals were drenched in blood — both animal and human — and the extent to which Roman sexual liberality was founded on terrifying exploitation of slaves and (sometimes) non-citizens.”
Again we have the argument that environmentalism functions as a substitute immanent religion, a theme familiar both to some religion scholars and to some Christian preachers.
So “the Pagans” here are not contemporary religious Pagans, be they Heathens or Hellenic reconstructionists. But they are a broadly drawn collection of people whose values might well match with those of many or most Wiccans, etc. etc. And these values are in sometimes violent conflict with the “transcendental” values, even when the conflict is cast in secular terms.
I had to follow Wind over Tide, “a folk band specializing in traditional music of the British Isles and Americas with special emphasis on tales of seafaring and adventure,” which was kind of a challenge.
The evening before I was scheduled to give the keynote address at the Fort Collins (Colorado) Pagan Pride Day on August 24th, M. and I were driving around the city, buying groceries for the camping trip we planned to take after the event, and sight-seeing a little bit.
The university town where I spent some of my teenage years has tripled in size. Yes, it’s weird seeing what was ag land turned into “technology parks” alternating with chain hotels and chain restaurants. And the drive up from the Denverplex was hellish.
Biologists studying the Poudre River above Fort Collins (Colorado Parks & Wildlife).
But one thing has changed for the better — the community’s relationship with the Cache la Poudre River, which leaves the mountains nearby and flows down through the city before continuing eastward across the High Plains.
My outdoorsy friends and I went rock-climbing at Horsetooth Reservoir, backpacking in the Rawah Wilderness, etc., and hunting wherever, but we ignored the Poudre River once it came out of the canyon and was no longer considered fishable. I don’t recall anyone canoeing it or anything like that. It was just a conduit to farms and towns further east.
In Fort Collins, a sign under a bridge shows the river’s flow in cubic feet per second.
Now the river has been dignified as the Cache la Poudre National Heritage Area. In the city, the change is huge. Suddenly it is a place that people want to visit for hiking, biking, kayaking, tubing, fishing, and so on. And at its nearest, it flows along edge of the downtown area, only three or four city blocks from the park where the festivities take place.
Where College Avenue, the main north-south commercial street, crosses the Poudre River.
So as I was standing there talking about nature religion and urban animism and such things, it hit me: the Pagan Pride Day ought to end with a procession to “honor the river.” (“Honoring” sounds suitably bland and inclusive, don’t you think?) Make up some wreaths of native flowers and grasses and toss them in with appropriate invocations. And of course there would be music.
I put that suggestion into my talk. Whether anyone takes me up on it remains to be seen. Meanwhile, I should be doing something like that for Hardscrabble Creek. Devotion begins at home.
M. and I were hunting mushrooms when she found this. “It’s the entrance to the Lower World!” she said.
“For the squirrel shaman,” I responded.
It’s not shamanic, but I have been putting some stuff on Instagram, like this photo. Instagram is not the place for long posts with lots of links, but if you’re an IG user, visit at letterfromhardscrabblecreek.