Baltic Gothic: A Quick Review of “November”

In rural 19th-century Estonia, as depicted in the film November, people did not merely put out food offerings for the Dead on All Souls Day — they fed them. And talked to them. And if the Dead wished to enjoy a sauna, a fire had already been lit. And then things get weird.

November is a beautifully photographed black-and-while film (with a little infrared too?). Sometimes it is such a series of images that I felt as though I was watching someone’s curated Instagram feed or Tumblr blog, until the snowman started talking or the Devil twisted someone’s neck and took his soul.

Maybe instead of “Baltic Gothic,” we should call it “Estonian Hoodoo.”

Things you will find in November: shapeshifting; wolves; dirty doings at the crossroads; servants who steal from German aristocrats justifying their thefts in the name of Estonian nationalism; people stealing from each other; sleepwalking; the Plague personified as a beautiful woman, a goat, or a pig; lots of folk magic (with some spectacular failures); dreams; visions; love; and death.

The society depicted is nominally Christian but the other elements justify the label Pagan-ish. In fact, it made me think of a novel that I had read, The Man Who Spoke Snakish, which is set in medieval Estonia at the time of Christian crusades against the Baltic Pagans.

Color me surprised. November is based on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk, who wrote The Man Who Spoke Snakish as well. This novel was Rehepapp ehk November (Old Barny aka November), and I am not sure if it has been published yet in an English translation.

If you liked The Man Who Spoke Snakish or the 2015 movie The Witch, you would like this one. Read more reviews at IMDB.com.

Photos: Mexico City’s Day of the Dead Parade

No one does the Day of the Dead like the Mexicans, who, after all, made it what it is today.

And there was a pre-parade: on October 24, the Catrinas parade. The photos above are from the Catrinas parade, but you might have a hard time telling the difference.

Locally, I saw this coming on September 29th!

Paganism belongs in the streets!

Out with Mabon, In with La Catrina

La Catrina at the Hanging Tree Cafe.

Grumble grumble. Now  Día de los muertos decorations  are on display in late September.

The Chile & Frijoles Festival was last weekend, the equinox, and it’s on to the next holy day(s)!

At the Hanging Tree Cafe, it is kind of Día de los muertos every day. Today, though, I see the owner (tall guy, cowboy hat, tattoos) hanging an articulated skeleton from the ceiling of the main dining room.

It was a very Instagramable moment, which is why I did not Instagram it.

Massive 2015 Year-End Link Dump! Something for Everyone!

This is a Druid knife. It says so.

Some of the links that I saved that never turned into blog posts . . .

• The Internet loves quizes, so “What Kind of Witch Would You Be?” (answer: hearth witch). I always suspect that the answer is based on just one question, while the others are there just for fluff and decoration.

• I saved this link from the Forest Door blog because I liked this thought:

This is, indeed, one of the roots of many problems in modern polytheism – people being unwilling to wait and let things naturally evolve. My biggest concern here isn’t the specific examples of mis-assignment (though they do exist, and are indicative of a serious lack of understanding in some cases). It is the fact that these folks are sitting around trying to artificially assign gods to places and things as if it’s just a game, or at best an intellectual exercise.

Local cultus is the new kale.

Is a knife named for Druids meant for Druids? (Echoes of allegations of human sacrifice?) Just what does “Druid” mean here?

• I did like John Halstead’s post on “the tyranny of structurelessness.” See also “Reclaiming.” See also “The Theology of Consensus.”

• Turn off the computer and play a 1,600-year-old Viking war game.

• From last July, a Washington Post story on Asatruar in the Army.

A photography book of modern British folklore. Not an oxymoron.

• More photography: “Earth Magic – Photographer Rik Garrett Talks About Witchcraft.”

What if witches hadn’t changed that much since medieval times and were still fairly close to the popular imagery conveyed by their early enemies during the classical witchhunts?

• So you’re a Pagan? Here are ten ways to show respect for your elders. It’s the Pagan way.

• Philosophy should teach you how to live. “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers.” Also, it’s Pagan.

• Reviewing a book on Greek and Roman animal sacrifice, which was, after all, the chief ritual back in the days when Paganism was the religion of the community.

• Was it the bells? Morris dancers attacked by dogs.

• Camille Paglia’s definition of “Pagan” is not mine, but she still kicks ass. Also, “Everything’s Awesome, and Camille Paglia Is Unhappy!”

• Embiggen thy word-hoard! Visit the Historical Thesaurus of Engish.

• But if you really want to go down the 15th-century rabbit hole, follow The Great Vowel Shift.

The New Yorker covers psychedelic therapy. To learn more, follow and donate to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. Also: “How Psychedelics Are Helping Cancer Patients Fend Off Despair.”

Looking good for an academic interview.

A review from last year of Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll.

• From the Chronicle of Higher Education: “How to Be Intoxicated.” Not surprisingly, Dionyus figures in more than does binge-drinking.

• Apparently the Yakuza, the Nipponese Mob, planned to call off Halloween due to a gang war. So how did that work out?

Three Items about the Dead

Whose Bones Are Those?

The Halloween news rush brought item about a new unit established at an Oxford college to perform cross-disciplinary investigations of religious relics

In what is thought to be the first research body of its type in the world, the unit, based in Keble College, will bring together experts in radiocarbon dating, genetics, osteology —the study of bones — chemistry, geography and archaeology with leading authorities in ancient Greek and Hebrew, Byzantine studies, ecclesiastical history and theology.

I am not sure what tone to take with this — not my saints after all — and it really does not matter to me if the skull of St. Cuthbert or whatever turns out to be someone else. One on level, this is interesting archaeology. On another, it feels like a re-run of the 16th century — the “stripping of the altars” and all that — but with “functional” science (instead of Protestantism) taking on “superstitious” religion (instead of Catholicism).

So why now? Is there a culture war motive, with “leading authorities in . . . . theology” participating in the disenchantment of the world? On the other hand, they hint that they may have found John the Baptist.

Four Scary Places

Still thinking about the dead? So are the editors at Indian Country Today, which ran this piece titled ” Get Spooked! 4 Scary Places to Visit This – or Any – Halloween,” on Friday last.

Halloween is the holiday when we face fear and get right in the face of the supernatural. Children wear costumes and adults seek out opportunities to confront the unknown or, some would say, the misunderstood. In that spirit, we offer four places you can go to laugh at your deepest anxieties. Or scream.

But why would you scream? Read it and find out.

Beads of copal (Wikimedia Commons).

Paganism at the Public Library

If I had time to drive over to Pueblo, Colo., today, I could view the winners of the public library’s Día de los muertos altar contest. Unfortunately, they were supposed to be set up at 1 p.m., so set-up is in progress as I write, with winners announced at 3:30 p.m.—and everything dismantled by 4:30.

The entry form states,”Altars judged on overall appearance, originality, and creativity reference [sic] to traditions of Día de los Muertos.” Battery-operated candles only, please.

The instruction sheet goes on to tell you that you may commemorate “ancestors past, celebritys [sic] or beloved pets.” So maybe Vlad the Impaler could count as a celebrity, as he did at the university on the mesa in 2007?

As I wrote in 2011, I am sensing some tension between people who want the altars to be done only in some correct Mexican-ish manner, and those wanting to take the tradition in new directions.

The instructions are quite specific as to how you are supposed to represent Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire, and of course copal incense (not burning, though) is recommended. (I like copal too.)

So I regret that I cannot see these altars, but I appreciate that the library is teaching an effectively Pagan tradition. My gardening priestess, however, wants me to haul a big round of bale of spoiled hay from a neighbor’s ranch for winter mulch this afternoon, however. That’s another Samhain ritual.

It’s Late October — Who Can Keep Up with the News?

psst it's halloweenThere is more Pagan-related stuff popping up in the news and publishing world than usual right now. I wonder why. So here are some highlights:

• Gwendolyn Reece is a university librarian, blogger (Diary of an Occult Librarian), and scholar — one recent publication, “Impediments to Practice in Contemporary Paganism,” appeared in the most recent issue of The Pomegranate. So it made sense for the communications and marketing office at her employer, American University in Washington, DC, to go to her as their in-house expert on all things Halloween-ish.

• The phrase “post-Christian Europe” has become a journalistic cliché. So a writer for The Week imagines what a post-Christian and pagan [sic] world might look like.

So, could we go back to paganism? This is more than an idle question. Our era is still — much more than we care to admit — very much defined by Christian ideals, which — much more than we care to admit — were very much defined in opposition to pagan ideals. Looking at the pagan worldviews that once ruled Europe should give us some insight into the West today, and, perhaps, its future.

The article is free from much knowledge of actual contemporary Paganism outside of Iceland. But he does make the point that sacrifice was key to ancient Paganism, even though nowadays it is euphemized or just plain considered icky

• There is a type of book that I call “I go among the Witches.” Mostly I associate these with the 1970s, such as Susan Roberts’ Witches U.S.A. (1971), Hans Holzer’s The New Pagans (1973 but now on Kindle!), and the queen of them all, Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon (original publication 1979).

A new entry in this genre is Alex Mar’s Witches of America. In a review titled “Eat, Prey, Learn Magic,” Rhyd Wildermuth gives it two thumbs down.

Much touted by the internet press–but met with muted reservation by most witches, her book offers a sordidly pornographic and self-aggrandising narrative disguised as an elucidating look into the way witchcraft is practised in the United States.  Belonging alongside a 1980’s issue of National Geographic (we’ll get to the pendulous breasts in a bit), exploitative British-tourist narratives, and freak-documentary, Mar’s book tells the tale of her search for authentic witchcraft in the most ‘extreme’ of American Pagan experiences.

• Want to sample Alex Mar’s book for yourself? Check this excerpt in New York magazine: “The Powerful, Unlikely Appeal of Witchcraft — Even for a Skeptic.”

That’s what this is like, the embarrassing wide-openness that witchcraft requires: a movement or voice or improv class, in which the actor is expected, required by her work, to throw herself all the way in. To make a flailing mess of herself as the only route to truer performance.

‘Cause her readers  understand the thea-tuh. Or as others say, “Fake it ’till you make it.” Nothing about deity in this excerpt, however.

How Halloween Came Back to Derry

A short video (Irish with subtitles; English) describing how a large public Halloween festival in the Northern Irish city of Derry began in a pub in the early 1980s and grew from there.

And while some speakers, including folklorist Jenny Butler, do discuss the ancient festival of Samhain, you will see that the Derry festival was not so much a self-conscious bit of Celtic revival as it was a way for people to step out of “the Troubles” (as the Irish euphemize the 1960s–1980s in Ulster) for one night of the year and be someone else.

You may also note a brief mention of pumpkins — the North American influence is there too.