Catholic Church Struggles with De Facto Polytheism

This is an old story, but it erupts in new forms. Polytheistic-style devotion keeps irrupting in the Roman Catholic Church, much to the concern of the hierarchs.

From The Catholic Herald (UK): “The Church’s life-and-death struggle with Santa Muerte: The Church in the Americas is sounding the alarm over a macabre new devotion.”

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.

Another of that period is Jesus Malverde, considered the patron saint of drug traffickers. It’s not to hard to find statues of him. He is one of a whole choir of “narco saints” (the linked article includes N. S. de Guadalupe; she is versatile).

The Ghosties Are Here Early

A ghostie joins La Catrina at the Hanging Tree Cafe.

I came down to Pueblo today and stopped for breakfast at the Hanging Tree Café, where it is already Halloween. And here I was getting geared up for the Chile & Frijoles Festival this weekend, which is my personal autumn equinox ritual. Time is out of joint! But at the Hanging Tree, La Catrina is always in the window. (I was complaining about this last year too, only this year I did Instagram it. It is what it is.)

Alexa, I Want to Talk to Julius Caesar

Via Mary Harrsch’s Roman Times online magazine: She is creating Alexa “skills” on ancient Roman topics.

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!

Topics include priesthood, horseback riding, and the Roman institution of slavery. There is another one called “Ancient Wisdom.”

Roman Times is in the sidebar under “Classics,” but you need to be at this blog’s home page to see the sidebar!

A Wreath for Hardscrabble Creek

Earlier this month I wrote about tossing offerings into the Cache la Pourdre River in northern Colorado, and it hit me that I had not done anything about a certain creek in the southern part of the state — a creek that has been hit hard with three summers of flash-flooding (thanks to a forest fire at its headwaters) yet which still sustains my well, among other things.

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.

When “Pagans” Return, Who Gets Hurt?

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.

Her essay discusses Steve D. Smith’s Pagans & Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac, another book I need to read. By “Pagans,” Smith does not mean today’s Wiccans, Druids, etc. but rather those who lack a “transcendent” orientation to god(s) above.

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.

Read it, just to stretch your brain.

And if you are commuting, listen to the related podcast interview with Steven Smith. Downloadable mp3 audio at the link.

You may not want the culture war, but the culture war wants you.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Robert Harris’ Fatherland remains an all-time favorite.
2. Bonus: fans of Richard III of England will like this one a lot. There are also vampires.
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.”

A Proposal for Honoring the Spirit of the Poudre River

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.

Edited to add: See what they are doing at Twin Cities Pagan Pride!

Related posts:

What is Wrong with Large-Scale Ritual?

Large-Group Ritual: Magic, Worship, or “Just What We Do”? (with procession and midsummer wreath-tossing)

Can You Put Your Paganism in the Street?

A Shortcut to the Lower World

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.

A New Study of Solitary Pagans

Solitary Pagans: Contemporary Witches, Wiccans, and Others Who Practice Alone is a new study from Helen A. Berger, a sociologist of religion who has been studying contemporary Paganism for decades. Her body of work is large enough now that future scholars will be returning to it again and again for its depth.

It is published by the University of South Carolina Press, which says,

Solitary Pagans is the first book to explore the growing phenomenon of contemporary Pagans who practice alone. Although the majority of Pagans in the United States have abandoned the tradition of practicing in groups, little is known about these individuals or their way of practice. Helen A. Berger fills that gap by building on a massive survey of contemporary practitioners. By examining the data, Berger describes solitary practitioners demographically and explores their spiritual practices, level of social engagement, and political activities. Contrasting the solitary Pagans with those who practice in groups and more generally with other non-Pagan Americans, she also compares contemporary U.S. Pagans with those in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada.

Berger brings to light the new face of contemporary paganism by analyzing those who learn about the religion from books or the Internet and conduct rituals alone in their gardens, the woods, or their homes. Some observers believe this social isolation and political withdrawal has resulted in an increase in narcissism and a decline in morality, while others argue to the contrary that it has produced a new form of social integration and political activity. Berger posits the implications of her findings to reveal a better understanding of other metaphysical religions and those who shun traditional religious organizations.

Prof. Berger has authored or co-authored a number of books on contemporary Paganism, including A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States (1999),  Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States (2003), Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for Self (2007), Witchcraft and Magic: Contemporary North America (2005).

In addition, she has mentored a number of younger social scientists studying contemporary Paganism (and other things) as well as having served on the steering committee for Contemporary Pagan Studies within the American Academy of Religion.

I will be looking to find this book at the AAR-SBL book show in November and will probably come home with a copy.

Pagan Children & the Anglican Death Spiral

Photo: The Very Reverend Jane Hedges rides the 55-foot high “helter-skelter” inside Norwich Cathedral in England.1)While her official biography says she was ordained a “deaconess” in 1980, she was elevated to “priest” in 1994. You can’t say “priestess” in the Anglican church — evidently the word makes them think of filmy skirts, tambourines, and sex. If you want a sort of objective correlative for the church’s health today, there it is, a downward spiral. (BBC)

Be patient, I am coming at this the long away around.

I was raised in the American Episcopal Church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, at the time. When I walked into an Anglican church in Canada or in Jamaica (where we lived for a couple of years) and picked up a prayer book, it obvious we were all in the same family, so to speak. There was an Anglican joke that referenced the church’s strength in all the former British colonies in Africa: “The Africans pray, the Americans pay, and the British make the rules.”

None of this is true anymore. In the United States, several different organizations compete for the allegiance of local Episcopal church parishes: the breakaway Anglican Church in North America,  the Anglican Church in America, the Church of Nigeria, and The Episcopal Church, the original body. And there are more. It’s very complicated and not germane at this point, except to say that the total membership of The (original) Episcopal Church is cratering.

In England, where the church was “established,” i.e., intertwined with the government as the official church of the nation, its piight is even worse, As columnist Rod Dreher (himself an Orthodox Christian) sneerlingly wrote, “Would the last Anglican left please remember to bring out the vestments? The Victoria & Albert Museum would no doubt like to preserve some evidence that there once was a thing called the Church of England.”

You can imagine his reaction to this article, in which clergy at a medieval cathedral defend their decision to (temporarily, they say) remove all the furnishings and replace them with amusement park rides and miniature golf:

The Reverend Canon Andy Bryant, from Norwich Cathedral, said he could see why people would be surprised to see the helter-skelter.

But in addition to showcasing the roof, he said it was “part of the cathedral’s mission to share the story of the Bible” and was a “creative and innovative way to do that”.

I don’t remember miniature golf (crazy golf) in the Bible, but maybe they are using a different translation.

I have two takeaways from this story.

For one, it is obvious that a lot of the Anglicans have “lost their contacts,” as the ceremonial magicians say.2)That is not the same as dropping a contact lens into the lavatory sink drain. In other words, their connection to their deity is not there anymore, there is no “juice,” and they are just trying to fill the void by social movements and entertainment.

For the second, at least within the liturgical churches there is a lot of learning for children. Not the hellfire part, but the importance of symbolic art, the transformative power of music (especially when you are doing the long chants yourself), some knowledge of sacred theater, exposure to ritual ways of dealing with birth, sickness, death, and everything else, and even a little about meditation and sacred reading.

I walked out the door myself at age 16. I was not mad at any one. No priest molested me or any of the altar boys that I knew about. I was not stewing about “adult hypocrisy” more than the average teenager might. I had just come to the conclusion that the church’s picture of the cosmos was not mine and that I could no longer accept its theology. So I spent the next five years as a “seeker” before someone showed Herself to me.

Now if I had a dollar for every Pagan who has said in my hearing “We won’t ‘push our religion’ on our children,” I could pay my fare to the American Academy of Religion meeting in San Diego next fall.

What I would like to say is, “If you don’t put something in that space, what are they going to fill it with?”  Digital nothings? People need forms for doing things. We need to be aware of other dimensions. I am no longer a Christian, but I do in retrospect thank the church for giving me a “vocabulary” of ritual and so forth — not the only ways of doing ritual, but at least some ways.

Of course, being Christian, all their focus was on the vertical axis — God up there, us down here. There was no significant “horizontal” engagement with the other-than-human world, aside from an occasional Blessing of the (domestic) Animals. Everything was put here for us to use, as described in Genesis. (The “stewardship” teaching is just watered-down domination.)

It delights me to see adult Pagans involving children in ritual and other “horizontal” engagements, giving them ways to think about relationships with other beings and ways to mark life’s changes. Memories made with the body and witch actions last longer than words and doctrines.

I am taking this quote from John Beckett’s blog out of context, but it fits. The topic is “sacrifice.”

Letting perfectly good food sit on an ancestor shrine was so foreign to my kids when our family began ancestor offerings. It smacked against their overculture, their appetites, their unawareness that physical objects are envelopes of intent.

If the parents are Wiccan, for example, will the kids be Wiccan? Who knows? But at least they will have a vocabulary for the sacred dimensions of life.

Miniature golf they can learn on their own.

Notes   [ + ]

1. While her official biography says she was ordained a “deaconess” in 1980, she was elevated to “priest” in 1994. You can’t say “priestess” in the Anglican church — evidently the word makes them think of filmy skirts, tambourines, and sex.
2. That is not the same as dropping a contact lens into the lavatory sink drain.

Getting Lost among the Mushrooms

Boletus edulis (Porcino, Steinpilze, etc.)

There are at least five stages to mushroom-hunting.

  1. You walk in the woods but do not see the mushrooms.
  2. You begin to see mushrooms here and there.
  3. Your unconscious is seeing mushrooms. For example, every reddish-tan thing on the forest floor that approximates the cap of a bolete will jump out and grab your attention.
  4. Even before you see the mushroom, you know it is right around that clump of trees — and it is. (This happens to me rarely, but it has happened)
  5. You have full cloth bags of mushrooms in your pack or in your hands. Then you look around, and it’s “Holy Pan, how did we get to be here? And just where are we?”

That was yesterday, up in the Wet Mountains, a thick fir forest at about 11,000 feet elevation. “Let’s swing around and work back to the Jeep,” I said to M., and she was ready, so we started moving slowly up the broad ridge. Then I looked around, and there to the north (on our left), was a steep drop-off that I had never seen before — any steeper and no trees could have grown on it. Where did that come from? Just where were we? Nice job, pixies!

I could see daylight ahead, so I hustled to the gentle crest of the ridge. Walking fast at that altitude mixed with just a little anxiety had my heart going thumpety-thump.

“Are we lost?” asked M.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Maybe we are a little south of where we should be.”1)Later, at home, she said, “I can read you like a book. You were lost.”

Far in the distance were were Sheep and Little Sheep mountains. Yes, we were too far south. We just needed to go east to cut the little dirt Forest Service road we had come up on. I got my compass, and saw that East was not precisely where I thought it was.

A few minutes on, we came to a small clearing, and looking downslope to the south, I could see a gravel road — not our road, but one that I knew intersected it. Since I had a clear view of the sky and was high up, I checked the iPhone. Sure enough, three bars.

I turned on the GPS, clicked the  Avenza Maps app, and discovered that I did not have the necessary topopgraphic map loaded. Nor had I brought a paper map. Why should I? Hadn’t we been mushroom-hunting that area since the 2000s without getting lost?

This old hollow fir trunk looked like the mask of a forest god.

But there was a good county road map loaded in the phone, the one that EMS and volunteer firefighters use for navigating mountain subdivisions. Sure enough, the blue dot was close to the road that I was looking for. We would have crossed it anyway, but the high-tech confirmation was comforting, I will admit.

We kept walking, and about half a mile later, there was the Jeep parked in the overgrown old skid road where we had left it.

I think the forest spirits have a message: “Don’t get cocky, kid. The world is a sharp as the edge of a knife.”

Notes   [ + ]

1. Later, at home, she said, “I can read you like a book. You were lost.”