This Sounds like a Druidic Homily

Lilac bud. (Pueblo Nature and Wildlife Discovery Center)

I was reading the online version of the Pueblo (Colorado) Chieftain this afternoon and happened onto this article provided by the Pueblo Nature and Wildlife Discovery Center, formerly known more prosaically as Pueblo Mountain Park: “Nature’s Classroom: Imbolg, Time of Germination.”

The park has a long and interesting history. I have mentioned it before in connection with its Yule Log tradition.

The Yule log celebration is  Pagan-ish for sure. So is this Imbolg column. You could have told me that I was reading one of John Beckett’s Druidic homilies, and I would have believed you.

Homily: a short commentary on a sacred topic — something less formal than a sermon.

Especially when the writer moves from observing nature “out there” to personal transformation.

Again, the trees are giving us an ample lesson and functional metaphor for our own new growth and blossoming. Perhaps you are working to lose weight, or to strengthen underused muscles, or to heal some aspect of your body or psyche. These things take time.

It sounds to me like creeping Paganism. Heh.

Farewell to the “Bulletin”

M. declared that tonight’s dinner would be a farewell celebration.

I just sent an issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion to the printer and said goodbye to the sales rep with whom I have been working for a number of years. He is in Pennsylvania, and I have never met him. (We never felt the need for a Zoom or Skype conference either.)

This quarterly publication has been around for a while. I just completed volume 49 as production editor, and I started with volume 39, so I gave it a decade.

The Bulletin began as a publication of the Council of Societies for the Study of Religion before being acquired by Equinox Publishing in 2009, shortly before I became involved.

For a time it was published “in affiliation” with the North American Association for the Study of Religion, a learned society that leans toward — as they put it — a “relentlessly reflexive critique of the theories, methods, and categories used in such study [of religion].”

Richard Newton, assistant professor of religious studies, U. of Alabama

Its current editor, Richard Newton of the University of Alabama (the third editor with whom I have worked), offers this brief history:

Some of you will know that the Bulletin began in 1971 under the auspices of The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion. Both the Bulletin and the Council brought together a diverse array of scholars and associations invested in the academic study of religion. The Bulletin played a crucial role in facilitating exchanges about how we study religion in the academy, especially against the backdrop of departments, guilds, and nations trying to determine their identity in relation to religion. After the Council disbanded in 2009, the Bulletin moved to Equinox Publishing where it remains one of the oldest ongoing publications in the academic study of religion in North America. [Then came the NAASR era.]

Earlier in 2020, Equinox and the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama entered into an agreement to continue to bring you the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. And I’m honored to serve as editor in this chapter of the publication’s history. In this capacity, I am excited to carry forth a vision for the Bulletin that continues the tradition developed by all those who’ve contributed to it over the years.

As production editor, I had nothing to do with acquiring the content itself. My job was to clean up editorial problems, make sure the citations were in proper Chicago Author-Date format, typeset it, proofread it, and produce an issue whose total page count was a number divisible by four.

I worked with several editors and watched the pendulum swing between issues full of papers and reviews that could have appeared in a peer-reviewed journal and articles more focused on issues of definition, of techniques of teaching, and on that most enduring question, “What can you do with a PhD in religious studies besides teaching?” (Quite a few things, actually, but they may not be obvious.)

In Professor Newton’s words, “The Bulletin is unique in that it offers a forum for various academic voices to debate and reflect on the ever-changing state of the field, and insofar as it encourages scholars continually to engage meta-level questions at the leading edge of inquiry.”

If I had a problem, it was “mission creep.” The print issue became a print-and-online issue. Well, making PDFs of the print articles is easy enough. Then the publisher started making noises about a fully HTML online issue. My Web-design skills are about early-2000s level, and I did not want to invest in more software and to climb the learning curve.

It was more about time than money, really. The money has been helpful and the content was interesting, but I want to spend more time on The Pomegranate and on other Pagan studies-related editorial and writing projects. I have worked with Richard Newton on a year’s worth of issues now, and I like what he is doing with the Bulletin, but it is time for me to concentrate on other things.

Joining Folklore: The Electronic Journal of Folklore

The Estonian Literary Museum, Tartu

Last month I accepted an invitation to join the editorial board of Folklore: The Electronic Journal of Folklore, which is published by the Estonian Literary Museum in the city of Tartu.

They have not yet updated the website, but you know how that goes.

Because Folklore is government-supported and Web-only, you can read the contents online. The articles are in English—otherwise I would not be much use to them, nor would the other board members from the USA, Ireland, India . . .

Here, for example, is “The Transmission of Knowledge among Estonian Witch Doctors,” by the editor, Mare Kõiva, the one who invited me.

It is not all about Estonia, however; I see articles from the other Baltic nations and from Finland, Russia, Ireland, and elsewhere. And you will find occasional articles on native Paganism, shamanism, etc.

My family has no Baltic corrections, although my oldest sister spent the last couple of years of her life in Kaunas, Lithuania, which is too long a story to tell here.

It would be great to go there sometime, pick a few mushrooms, and read or write in a room like this one.

Maybe I could drop in on the secret cyberforce. They probably have already read this post.

Our guys in Multicam are there too. You didn’t know? They probably never get to use the folklore reading room.

Great Review for Calico’s “Being Viking”

I was happy to see Being Vking: Heathenism in Contemporary America get a good review in Reading Religion, which is the American Academy of Religion’s online book-review site.

Michael Strmiska (currently teaching in Latvia) writes,

Being Viking deserves great praise and wide readership as an extremely detailed and well-researched historical and ethnographical study of the American variant of the New Religious Movement (NRM) variously known as Heathenry, Heathenism, Asatru or Modern Norse (or Germanic) Paganism.

Calico ably addresses many dimensions of the American Heathen religion from the biographies and contributions of religious leaders such as Stephen McNallen, Valgard Murray, and Diana Paxson to such particular practices as the sumbel (a toasting ritual); the blot (an alternate form of the sumbel)), and seid/seit (an oracular rite). In addition, Calico examines the devotion to medieval Icelandic and Germanic literary and religious texts as key source materials, the dedication of many members to practicing premodern folk crafts from Norse and Germanic tradition, variant forms of organization that have developed over time, questions of the importance of ancestral identity in the self-definition of Heathenism, and the important and enduring debate between “universalist” and “folkish” forms of the religion over who should be allowed to participate in and affiliate themselves with the religion.

Being Viking

Being Viking deserves great praise and wide readership as an extremely detailed and well-researched historical and ethnographical study of the American variant of the New Religious Movement (NRM) variously known as Heathenry, Heathenism, Asatru or Modern Norse (or Germanic) Paganism.

Heathenism, to use Jefferson Calico’s preferred term for the modern Norse Pagan movement in America,  is a form of modern or contemporary Paganism that endeavors to create a workable contemporary version of pre-Christian Norse Paganism as was once practiced in Iceland, Scandinavia, and Germanic Europe. Being Viking is the product of many years of participant-observation fieldwork research that Calico has conducted among Heathens in the United States and informed by extensive reading in the literature of NRMs in general and Modern Norse Paganism in particular. He builds on the previous work of such scholars as Jeffrey Kaplan, Mattias Gardell, Jenny Blain, Jennifer Snook, and myself.

Calico ably addresses many dimensions of the American Heathen religion from the biographies and contributions of religious leaders such as Stephen McNallen, Valgard Murray, and Diana Paxson to such particular practices as the sumbel (a toasting ritual); the blot (an alternate form of the sumbel)), and seid/seit (an oracular rite). In addition, Calico examines the devotion to medieval Icelandic and Germanic literary and religious texts as key source materials, the dedication of many members to practicing premodern folk crafts from Norse and Germanic tradition, variant forms of organization that have developed over time, questions of the importance of ancestral identity in the self-definition of Heathenism, and the important and enduring debate between “universalist” and “folkish” forms of the religion over who should be allowed to participate in and affiliate themselves with the religion.

The universalist conception holds that Modern Norse Paganism should be open and embracing to any person anywhere regardless of ethnic or racial background who feels a sincere spiritual interest in Norse Pagan gods and traditions. The folkish perspective holds that membership in the religion should be mainly—or even exclusively—limited to people of European or Germanic descent. Calico also provides valuable discussion of the problematic “metagenetics” theory propounded by Stephen McNallen, a pseudo-scientific attempt to ground Heathen spirituality—and folkish exclusiveness—in European genetics.

Calico juxtaposes the historical development of each topic while also providing colorful sketches of particular Heathens and their life-situations and religious practices. The author traces the lineages of different organizational structures that have undergirded the development of American Heathenism such as the Ring of Troth, more commonly and simply known as the Troth, and the Asatru Folk Alliance (AFA) pointing out their differing attitudes toward both religious practice and preferred practitioners, with the Troth being the more open and inclusive structure and the AFA the least, with a pronounced emphasis on ancestry and ethnicity that many observers have reckoned a thinly masked form of racism, or at the very least, very attractive to racists. Calico uses the metaphor of a river into which tributary streams feed and swirl as a means of explicating the different intellectual, cultural and social “streams” of influence that have fed into American Asatru, and this is an effective and intriguing manner of conceptualizing the internal diversity, dialogue, and conflict in the religion.

Read the whole thing.

Being Viking is part of Equinox Publishing’s Pagan-studies book series, of which I am the longest-surving editor, a tale of success, frustration, corporate marriage and corporate divorce, and who knows what will happen next?

Animism in the Kitchen

Chef Sarah Grueneberg

Chef Sarah Grueneberg

I was watching the cooking show Simply Ming on Friday, which is hosted by Boston chef Ming Tsai. He always has a guest chef — or occasionally his parents, who started him on his career — and in this episode, his guest was a Chicagoan (via Texas), Sarah Grueneberg.

She is showing him how to make the pasta dough for Tortilli Verdi, “her restaurant Monteverde’s signature dish,” and at one point she says something like, “The pasta knows when you’re afraid.”

Oh no, I thought, not dough too! It’s alive in a yeasty sense, of course but it can sense your fear? Ah, the animist world —so complicated! I reckon that is why we like it.

Ancient Idol Is Older than They Thought

Head of the Shirgir idol

Head of the Shigir Idol, the world’s oldest wood sculpture, discovered in a Russian peat bog in 1890. Photo courtesy of the Sverdlovsk Regional Museum.

The Shirgir Idol, a wooden statue that you may see at the Sverdlovsk Regional Museum of Local Lore has now been re-dated, pushing its age back to 12,500 years before present.  In North American terms, that is about the time of the “Clovis culture,” when hunters with big spearpoints pursued big animals that no longer exist.

According to an article on the Artnet website, the statue was first dated as 9,500 years old.

In 2018, more advanced accelerator mass spectrometry technology testing the pristine core of the larch wood statue—rather than the surface, which had undergone numerous conservation treatments over the more than 100 years since its discovery—determined that it was actually even older: closer to 11,600 years old.

Now, a new study published in Quaternary International has pushed that date back by a further 900 years—making it more than twice as old as Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids.

The idol is nine feet tall, made of wood, with humanoid faces and geometric markings. It survived because it was in a peat bog, where gold miners found it in 1890s. There might be others still unfound.

In regions with large forests, wood would have been readily available to Paleolithic artists, but quick to deteriorate over the centuries. That means that our understanding of these ancient peoples is shaped by preservation biases, and might have been very different had more wooden artifacts like the Shigir Idol survived.

“Wood working was probably widespread during the Late Glacial to early Holocene,” the paper argues. “We see the Shigir sculpture as a document of a complex symbolic behavior and of the spiritual world of the Late Glacial to Early Mesolithic hunter-gatherers of the Urals.”

To be fair, as British historian Francis Young pointed out on Twitter, “And even if  [the Shengir idol and similar] did serve a religious purposes, are they gods or ancestors? Was there a distinction? I rather doubt it. We certainly can’t impose our Classically-derived assumptions about gods with distinct personalities and names, etc.”

A New Graphic Timeline of American Wicca

One of the non-Californians on the timeline, Grey Cat (Manya M.) lived in Tennessee and was a friend of mine.

The Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) “TImeline” is now available for free download online. Anyone interested in the history of contemporary Paganism in America ought to give it a look.

The CoG Timeline was compiled and designed by Andrea Joy Kendall with contributions from Anne Agard, Angie Buchanan, Jo Carson, Andras Corban-Arthen, Phyllis Curott, Amber K, Anna Korn, Rowan Fairgrove, Donald Frew, J. Hildebrand, M. Macha NightMare, and Starhawk. This timeline includes events of interest to anyone that wants to understand what the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and its members do.

The Timeline is presented in two PDF files: Part 1 and Part 2. Do understand that since CoG started in northern California, the Timeline reflects that geographical slant. The San Francisco Bay Area is somewhat over-represented. New Yorkers may wail and lament.

CoG itself was started in the 1970s:

In the Spring of 1975, a number of Wiccan elders from diverse traditions, all sharing the idea of forming a religious organization for all practitioners of Witchcraft, gathered to draft a covenant among themselves.  These representatives also drafted bylaws to administer this new organization now known as the Covenant of the Goddess

It chief purpose, beyond fellowship, was to provide ministerial credentials to Witches who wished to perform weddings and fill other public roles.

“And even Wicca”: A Historical Study of Santa Muerte

An anthropologist and a historian examine the development of the cult of Santa Muerte (Holy Death) in this article, “Syncretic Santa Muerte: Holy Death and Religious Bricolage,” which currently is a free download.

“Bricolage” is a term beloved by scholars of new religious movements. It means building something with available materials in a do-it-yourself fashion — a little of this and a little of that. For its history in academic writing, see Wikipedia.

The authors write,

Firstly, taking an ethno-archaeological, anthropological and historical viewpoint, we argue that Santa Muerte accreted from the meeting of two distinct conceptions of death during the colonial era, when Spanish colonizers brought Christianity to Latin America to convert Indigenous people, and with it the figure of the Grim Reaper which represented death. . . .

Through further religious bricolage in the post-colony, we describe how as the new religious movement rapidly expanded it integrated elements of other religious traditions, namely Afro-Cuban Santeria and Palo Mayombe, New Age beliefs and practices, and even Wicca. In contrast to much of the Eurocentric scholarship on Santa Muerte, we posit that both the Skeleton Saint’s origins and contemporary devotional framework cannot be comprehended without considering the significant influence of Indigenous death deities who formed part of holistic ontologies that starkly contrasted with the dualistic absolutism of European Catholicism in which life and death were viewed as stark polarities

The nearest supermarket has candles for Our Lady of Guadalupe, Santo Niño de Atocha, etc., but no Santa Muerte. I wonder how long it will take before “our distributor” (they blame everything on “our distributor”) has them in stock.

Happy Ostara, and It’s Going to Snow

Photo by Arno Smit/Unsplash/Creative Commons, via Religion News Service.

Happy Ostara to those of you who experience something called “spring.” I will be taking advantage of the last of three warm days — which have melted most of the snow that was on the ground — to split some firewood in advance of the snow expected Sunday night, Monday, and Tuesday.

That is life in the eastern Rockies, where we have a little poem about the weather:

Winter in the spring,
Summer in the fall,
Fall in the winter,
And no spring at all.

I was interviewed by a writer for Religion News Service for an article about Pagans at Ostara, which is a little funny since I am usually thinking about snow and not new life and renewal. That comes in April (along with a chance of snow).

In the article as it appeared, I’m up against Laurie and Penny Cabot. Who can compete with Laurie Cabot, the witch-mother of Salem, Mass.[1]It would not have become “Witch City, USA” without her! Today’s forecast for Salem is sunny with a high of 54° F. Brisk! But they will be a the good old Hawthorne Hotel, which I have visited a couple of times.

Notes

Notes
1 It would not have become “Witch City, USA” without her!

We Pagans Are the “Useful Idiots”

Reading Religion, which is a book-review site run by the American Academy of Religion, recently assigned me a book to review: Our Non-Christian Nation: How Atheists, Satanists, Pagans, and Others Are Demanding Their Rightful Place in Public Life.

The author is a Boston University law professor, and he well summarizes the FIrst Amendment law cases that made it possible, for example, for an avowed Satanist to give the invocation before a city council meeting in upstate New York.  And he goes riding around Circle Sanctuary in an “side by side” ATV with Selena Fox.

But Professor Jax Wexler is the kind who expects the class to laugh at his jokes, and he spends a little too much time telling which Supreme Court justices he despises and how getting drunk is the only way to cope after spending time with people from Greece, New York (it’s a suburb of Rochester).

What struck me the most was that to Wexler we Pagans — and the Satanists and all the minority religions — are just “useful idiots.”[1]A “useful idiot” is a person [or group] perceived as propagandizing for a cause without fully comprehending the cause’s goals, and who is cynically used by the cause’s leaders … Continue reading We are levers to use against “Christian hegemony,” and when that is finished with, so are we.

He is an atheist with a capital-A, and in his world, there is no Out There or In There or Over There, only human consciousness trapped in the bone box of the skiull and only this world as revealed by Science. Down the road lies the Atheist utopia, once we get rid of all these “deplorables” with their silly religions.

If you want to read it, here is the review that I wrote.

Notes

Notes
1 A “useful idiot” is a person [or group] perceived as propagandizing for a cause without fully comprehending the cause’s goals, and who is cynically used by the cause’s leaders (Wikipedia).