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.

OMG, Cultural Appropriation of Hallowe’en by Capitalists

chesterfield-halloweenActress Dorothy Lamour, a Hollywood star of the 1940s and early 1950s (who made a comeback in the 1970s.) She appeared in several movies set in the South Pacific and is often remembered for the publicity photos of herself wearing a sarong, making her the “number 1 pinup girl of the U.S. Army” in World War II. The ad mentions her movie Wild Harvest, which appeared in 1947.

It’s Not Culturally Insenstive When We Do It in a Hip and Ironic Way

One Antonia Blumberg, writing at The Huffington Post, which often veers off into the weeds of political correctness, tackles that burning question of late October: Is it “culturally insensitive” to wear a Hallowe’en witch costume?

But the  HuffPo’s  cultural sensitivity is barely skin deep — they are also featuring an article on “Witch Is the New Black: How to Dress Like Your Favorite Sorceress.

At least Blumberg interviews Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, who sees no problem:

“As someone who has been politically active for many years, I see that there’s some power in taking images and repurposing them,” said Fox. “Some in our community have chosen to have some fun with witch costumes.”

Pagan doctoral candidate Sam Webster adds,

“It highly depends on who’s doing it,” Webster told HuffPost. “If it’s a pagan or a witch, they’re usually doing it with a bunch of self-referential irony.”

Which makes sense; and what also makes sense is to adopt an attitude of “who cares?” Don’t be like the stupid school administrators mentioned in the article who banned Hallowe’en celebrations in the school “partly out of respect for practitioners of Wicca who might find the symbols offensive.” Yeah, right. They care so much about us. That language is just bureaucratic butt-covering: “Let’s avoid controversy by banning something else.”

The more Hallowe’en celebrations and the more pointy hats, the better, as far as I can see. Only what do the guys wear? Sorry, I can’t do Sabrina or Stevie Nicks.

“Beautiful, Wartless Witches”

(Smithsonian)

According to Smithsonian magazine, Hallowe’en started becoming a fashionable party evening in the early 1900s. And images of witches were (surprise) empowering:

“This is the period of the New Woman—the woman who wants to have her say, to be able to work, marry who she chooses, to divorce, and, of course, to be able to vote,” [Daniel] Gifford explains. “There are lots of questions about how much power women have at this time. What sort of boundaries can they push? How far can they push them? What sense of control do they have over their own lives and their own fate?”

Note the swastika and horseshoes, both good-luck symbols at the time, combined with hearts. (Hat tip to The Witches’ Voice on the Book of Face.)

The Myth of Halloween Sadism

Myth in the popular sense, that is to say, an urban legend, says sociologist Joel Best, who has been studying the razor-blade-in-the-apple and similar stories for decades.

Visit his website and click the tab for “Halloween Sadism.”

Halloween sadism is best seen as a contemporary legend (sometimes called an urban legend) (Best and Horiuchi 1985, Grider 1984, Ellis 1994). That is, it is a story that is told as true, even though there may be little or no evidence that the events in the story ever occurred. Contemporary legends are ways we express anxiety. Note that concerns about Halloween tend to be particularly acute in years when some sort of terrible recent crime has heightened public fears.

Worth a read. One root of the legend may be a related tale of nasty people heating pennies in skillets and then tossing them to begging children.

The Day of the Dead Post that was not Written

This would have been the perfect writing prompt for a Day of the Dead post: a big family memorial service for my uncle Jim, my mother’s younger brother, once well-known in the Denver legal scene.

But I am not writing that post, full of ancestral stuff.

He died in September, in Sun City, Arizona, where he lived after retirement, but the memorial was delayed until today, for reasons that I am not privy to.

His brother, Robert, told me that his ashes would be interred in a columbarium at the Episcopal cathedral in Denver. Columbarium is Latin for pigeonhole or dovecote, basically. Depending on the design, your “cremains” go into something like a post office box.

Robert had said that Jim’s would be placed with those of his mother and sister. These compartments are built under a broad sidewalk. As a high school senior, visiting the cathedral during some sort of humanities class trip devoted to ecclesiastical architecture, my girlfriend and I danced up and down that sidewalk, because I wanted to say that I had danced on my mother’s grave — in advance.

My mother and I were not too close.

When she died, I did the medical power-of-attorney thing, making last decisions at the hospital, and then handled her estate, but that was out of filial duty — and neither of my sisters wanted the job. They had their own issues with our mother.

Although I take after my mother’s family physically, I am not too close to them either — even though I have about twenty cousins on that side. For some reason, Uncle Robert never emailed the final details about the service and reception, and it says something that I did not know whom to call. Nor was I about to drive 150 miles to Denver and then hang around the cathedral, waiting.

Besides, had I gone, I would have missed the neighbors’ Bonfire Night party. (She’s British, in case you’re wondering.) As I started writing this post, with the front door standing open for the afternoon warmth, I heard a chainsaw whining in the distance — probably Bernie cutting more wood for a big fire. It’s a tradition on our road, and I wonder who the “Guy” tossed into the fire will be this year.

Last year’s party came a week after the forest fire, and the party-goers were split between the people who still had their homes and those who did not but came anyway.

This year, anyway, the village is more important than distant kin.

Beavering Away at Home

beaver ponds10-13Once in a while, I like to note that Hardscrabble Creek is a real place. The beaver pair had kits this year, and they also expanded their dams from two to five. A couple of years ago, they left because they had eaten all the available deciduous forage, mostly narrowleaf cottonwood and willows. Will the rising water table encourage more beaver-edible trees to grow? (They don’t eat pines.) Can they keep expanding their string of dams upstream?

And here are some links:

¶ At Occult Chicago, Rik traces sites associated with Thee Church of Satan in the 1970s.

¶  Artforum notes the recent Occult Humanities Conference: Contemporary Art and Scholarship on the Esoteric Traditions.

¶ Anton Lavey’s daughter Zeena describes how her Halloween experience when she was a little girl living with her father, the founder of the Church of Satan.

For the first quarter century of my life, back when I was the devil’s defender, Halloween wasn’t the fun and merriment it was for many others.

¶ Oh no! I bought the Halloween candy, but I forgot to pray over it!