Which “Paganism” Did the New York Times Mean?

When New York Times (mostly) political columnist Ross Douthat wrote a December 12 column titled “The Return of Paganism: Maybe There Actually is a Genuinely Post-Christian Future for America,” some Pagans got a little too excited — look, the NYT is writing about us!

Remember, there are at least three definitions for “pagan/Pagan.”

  1. A nonreligious person or an unbeliever, from a monotheistic perspective.1)For Jews, this means to never have them as close friends or family. For Christians, it means they should be converted. For Muslims, it means they should be converted, and meanwhile, it permissible to enslave them.
  2.  A person philosophically opposed to monotheisms on the grounds that they are life-denying cosmologies that desacralize the world. An example that I will return to is the French philosopher Alain de Benoist, known for his book On Being a Pagan, and other works. Camille Paglia fits here too. Such philosophical Pagans, however, often look down their noses at category 3.
  3.  Persons who declare that they are following a Pagan religion. This may represent a reconstructed version of what their ancestors did or a new set of practices deemed compatible with ancient Paganism or a reconstructed version of practices from an admired ancient culture (for instance, if I were a Hellenic reconstructionist although not Greek by heritage). In addition, “Pagan” sometimes is employed to cover all polytheistic,2)There are “atheist” and “humanistic” Pagans, it is true. Perhaps they are merely Unitarians who like to be in the woods. animistic, and indigenous religions

A lot of Douthat’s piece is about position #1.

Here are some generally agreed-upon facts about religious trends in the United States. Institutional Christianity has weakened drastically since the 1960s. Lots of people who once would have been lukewarm Christmas-and-Easter churchgoers now identify as having “no religion” or being “spiritual but not religious.” The mainline-Protestant establishment is an establishment no more.

Then he goes into a “spiritual smorgasbord” section, where the “religious impulse” produces new creations of spiritual entrepreneurs who “cobble together pieces of the old orthodoxies” that are still under the overarching monotheist worldviews.

Nevertheless, he continues, there comes a “moment when you should just believe people who claim they have left the biblical world-picture behind, a context where the new spiritualities add up to a new religion.”  He quotes a new book by Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac, which speaks of a “new religious conception”:

What is that conception? Simply this: that divinity is fundamentally inside the world rather than outside it, that God or the gods or Being are ultimately part of nature rather than an external creator, and that meaning and morality and metaphysical experience are to be sought in a fuller communion with the immanent world rather than a leap toward the transcendent

That sounds exactly like what Benoist was writing in the early1980s, or like various other people in the “#2 Pagan” category. But we have not even gotten to Wiccans, Heathens, Druids, etc.!

He finally gets to Wiccans, etc., at the end, consigning them to a “New Age” category, which just shows his ignorance. After all, if your Paganism includes “the gods are a part of nature,” you are not New Age but very Old Age. “New Age” is all about leaping towards the transcendent, just in a more gnostic way than in the churches.

By the end, he is broadly hinting that this “new paganism” will lead to an increase in demonic possession — just follow his last hyperlink.

Writing for The Wild Hunt, Manny Tejado-Moreno claims that “Douthat has it backwards. . . . Douthat appears to be profoundly disturbed at the loss of central moral authority, and, apparently unable to cope with what organized religion has done to itself, seeks a scapegoat in Paganism.”

But no, it’d not “backwards” insofar as Doughtat is not really writing about us practicing Pagans. We are just an afterthought. He is indeed concerned about the loss of Christian hegemony, a concern raised a couple of generations ago in western Europe but only more recently popping up in North America, where Christianity was always the 600-pound gorilla in the religion room.3)Now it’s what, the 300-pound gorilla? He sees the #1-#2 “paganism” that is replacing it as a falling away from The Truth.

If you want to watch a thoughtful Christian writer struggle with that issue, bookmark Rod Dreher’s blog or read his book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in Post-Christian Nation, which is selling well in translation in France and Italy, I wonder why.

Notes   [ + ]

1. For Jews, this means to never have them as close friends or family. For Christians, it means they should be converted. For Muslims, it means they should be converted, and meanwhile, it permissible to enslave them.
2. There are “atheist” and “humanistic” Pagans, it is true. Perhaps they are merely Unitarians who like to be in the woods.
3. Now it’s what, the 300-pound gorilla?

Publishing Thoughts after AAR-SBL 2018

Nothing gladdens an editor’s heart like seeing an author with his new book. Here Jefferson Calico talks about Being Viking: Heathenisn in Contemporary America with Giovanna Parmigiani, who also presented a paper in a Contemporary Pagan Studies session.

I got so busy with the “Season of the Witch(crap)” series that I wrote nothing about last month’s joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature.1)The SBL is actually the parent of the AAR, but the child organization is now much bigger and broader.

The meeting this year was in Denver for the first time since 2001. Although I live in Colorado, I visit Denver only once or twice a year, and when I do, I feel like a country mouse in the urban canyons. There was a time when I sold print advertising up there once or twice a month and was pretty familiar with the central areas, but so much has changed, that my memories are palimpsests, and I have to learn its geography all over again. That restaurant that I remember as moderately priced is now more expensive, and they don’t have any tables available.

That said, if you are a meeting planner, Denver’s convention center is easy to navigate, is withing about four blocks of thousands of hotel rooms, and also within a short walk from many restaurants, so that 10,000 hungry intellectuals discharged into the city center can find places to eat lunch.

And you can take an Amtrak train (or a commuter train from the airport) into the city center and then ride a free shuttle bus into the hotel district. M. and I drove, however, handing our mud-splattered Jeep over to the hotel parking valet for the duration.

But enough boosterism. I was there with a light heart: I am no longer co-chair of the AAR’s Contemporary Pagan Studies Unit, and I had no obligations to anyone about anything, not to mention no obligation to attend the 7:15 a.m. chairs’ breakfast (yawn) or the tense negotiations of the steering committees’ reception, where, drink in hand and shouting in someone’s ear, you attempt to arrange joint sessions for the following year.

Thank you, term limits!

Instead, I went to sessions and talked to authors, coming away with a possible two books for the Equinox series in Contemporary and Historical Paganism and a contribution to an editing collection that is in progress. I will not name these, because I do not wish to jinx them.  The series, I should say, has published more than one book as it has moved from publisher to publisher, but after a merger and a de-merger, we had to re-set the meter to zero. Long story.

I also came away with plans for a guest-edited issue of The Pomegranate  on
Traditionalism and Paganism. I had always though of Traditionalism as concerned mainly with esoteric approaches to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but there is also Pagan or Pagan-friendly version, largely traceable back to the French philosopher Alain de Benoist.

And then we get into some very tricky territory. Here there be dragons.

Soon I will post all the “calls for papers” for three special issues of The Pomegranate, each with a well-qualified editor, and if you are working in any one those areas, I hope that you will get in touch.

Notes   [ + ]

1. The SBL is actually the parent of the AAR, but the child organization is now much bigger and broader.

Season of the Witch(crap), Part 3

As a rule, media witches are always young and female (Mercator).

Season of the Witch(crap), Part 1

Season of the Witch(crap), Part 2

“Witchcrap”: superficial journalistic treatments of Wicca, Witchcraft, and related Pagan paths.

• In The Atlantic,Young black women are leaving Christianity and embracing African witchcraft in digital covens.” Except the article discusses a convention and gets to the digital stuff later. I think the “penchant for digital religion” extends across racial boundaries

• Meanwhile, “Though it is the subtext of savagery that animates narratives around witches, white women who take up the mantle of witch magic rarely understand themselves to be engaging in Indian or savage play,” proclaims the online magazine New Inquiry.

• The Australian Catholic magazine Mercator keeping an eye on Wicca too, but the article is by Massimo Introvigne, who is a well-known scholar of new religious movements and also a Roman Catholic. “The Rise and Rise of Wicca.”

Spike groans, “Spare Me This Pagan Revival.” “Pagans are generally perverts, and not even sexy ones.”

• And from India, Swarajya magazine offers “The Religion They Want to Build,” which notes the Indo-Europeaness of much revived Western Paganism:

As is expected from the linguistic kinship among Indo-European languages, European Pagan cultures show striking similarities with various Indic indigenous traditions. For instance, among Lithuanian Neo Pagans, the notion of Damumas as a foundation of the world order is a central idea. According to Lithuanian ethnologist and Romuva ideologue Jonas Trinkunas, the word Damumas is linked etymologically to the Sanskrit dharma and the Pali Dhamma. J P Mallory, a prominent Indo-European scholar cites another linguistic parallel in a Lithuanian proverb — ‘Dievas dave dantis; Dievas duous duonoss’. The proverb translates as ‘God gave us teeth, God will give bread’. The Sanskrit equivalent of the proverb is Devas adadat datas, Devas dat dhanas.

Not so crappy. And another indication that some Hindus are realizing that they have more in common with us than with the Middle Eastern monotheisms.

Season of the Witch(crap), Part 2

Candace Aguilera trained in Guatemala’s jungle (Colorado Springs Independent).

“Season of the Witch(crap), Part 1” here.

Continuing . . .

• One more “high” priestess joke, and you’re out of here. From the Colorado Springs Independent, the weekly that gets all the cannabis advertising because the chain-owned daily paper won’t touch it: “Meet Colorado’s High Priestess of Cannabis.” Yes, it’s that favorite form of American creativity: Let’s start a church!

• The Catholic News Agency views the number of self-proclaimed witches with alarm: “Number of Americans who say they are witches is on the rise.” With video.

• If you dare . . . “Go inside a Wiccan ceremony.” Also with video. Fairly mild sauce, actually.

• It’s the Guardian again: “The season of the witch: how Sabrina and co [sic] are casting their spell over TV.”  “Diverse, digitally savvy and definitely feminist” — yes, that’s all it takes to be a media witch.

• And on public [sic] radio, “When you hear the word ‘witch,’ what does your mind conjure?” Damn, that’s clever writing. This time it’s the 1A show: “Hex in Effect: Why Witches are Back.” (Were we gone? Did I miss that memo?) A teaser for the radio show, which you can listen to if you have unlimited earbuds time.

• On Halloween, Vox.com covered the Sephora witch-kit kerfuffle, which is already old news. “The occult is having a moment. Companies want in, but not if witches can help it.” So much is wrong with this. Is there something measurable called “the occult”?  Sigh. I wanted to list everything Vox gets wrong, I would need a bigger blog. At least The Onion tells you that it is non-serious. Anyway, this one is over.

Maja, photographed by Frances Denny of Brooklyn. Denny is descended from a Salem witch-trial judge of 1692. That qualified her to “explore what it means to be a witch today.”(Daily Mail).

• Ah, those millennials. Now they are “ditching religion for witchcraft and astrology.” I could be snarky and say, “Hey, the Seventies called and they want their headlines back.” Or I could say that this is something that is always going on. Decades. Centuries.

The Daily Mail just goes for the photo shoot. If you don’t look like these “actresses, authors, and a technician,”  are you a real witch?

At least the photographer was inspired by a a worthwhile book, Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692. (What does it say that the Daily Mail cannot even get a book title right?)

Link fixed — sorry.

Don’t go away. There will be more. And guess what is missing from almost all of these articles.

Season of the Witch(crap), Part 1

When I look out my window,
Many sights to see.
And when I look in my window,
So many different people to be
That it’s strange, so strange

Strangeness. Back before there was an Internet, dear readers, I clipped and photocopied newspapers and magazine articles on Wicca, other Paganisms, etc., and sorted them into folders labeled “Witchcrap 1970s,” “Witchcrap 1980s,” and so on. Eventually, printed-out Web pages joined the rest. Why the name? Because so much of it was crap, but at least it kept the idea out there.

Dear readers, I have to say that this past “season of the witch” has been extraordinary! I have so many bookmarked links that this will be a two-part blog post (or three-part). So . . . in no particular order, it’s “Best of Witchcrap 2018”!

• Those of us in the know know that the heartland of America is the heartland of Paganism, so a title like “Occult Rituals in the Backwoods of Wisconsin” should not raise any eyebrows. After all, who else is in the backwoods of Wisconsin? Circle Sanctuary, that’s who. This one is not really about Paganism, however, so much as it is about murder and “Goatman.” You know, teenagers summoning Satan and all that. Not Selena Fox.

• In Britain, the ever-so-earnest Guardian newspaper asks, “Why Are Witches So Popular?” Since it’s the Guardian, the answer must be that “this new wave is linked to the bubbling cauldron of contemporary politics.” Move along, nothing religious to see hear. No invisible friends — Karl Marx said they don’t exist.

• Elsewhere on the political spectrum, inviting witches into politics is seen as a bad thing — and to be honest, it does not produce predictable results. In the Washington Examiner, “Emails: Kyrsten Sinema summoned witches to her anti-war rally.” She won a close election though, “hocus-pocus” or not.

• Meanwhile, in Pagan-friendly but officially Lutheran Iceland, “Icelanders abandon National State Church, as old pagan Ásatrú continues to grow.” The Pagan Association of Iceland claims 1.2 percent of the population, all of whom could fit into Colorado Springs with room left over. But still, I do feel that 1 percent is a kind of tipping point, the point where “they” have to take you seriously. Also, 6.9 percent of Icelanders are registered as “nones.”

Continue to Part 2!

Continue to Part 3!

 

The Gods Do Not Vote, So Why Are You Asking Them?

Hexing in progress. (Reuters via National Review)

When I was a kid, I read some condensed version of the Iliad for young people. I did not understand the gods.

After all, I was raised to be a Christian. In the Bible, YHWH was supposed to take care of his special people, the Jews, although sometimes he expressed his care and concern . . . oddly. The Christians continued that idea with themselves as the special people, and so on with other monotheistic religions. Obviously, God favored the “good guys.”

In the Iliad, the Greeks are the “good guys,” near as, although the Trojans are not especially villainous, just the other team. But the story is told from the Greeks’ point of view. Yet some of the gods favored on side and some the other. How could that be?1)You don’t really hear about the Trojans’ religion as a separate thing.

Later in life, having changed quite a bit, I would write about the Iliad, linking to the story of a Navy SEAL killed in combat, whose mother reflected, “He was born to do this job.”

That is the polytheistic view of life. The world is a mess. The world is beautiful. The gods are eternal (or as good as). The gods work at cross-purposes, and sometimes humans are caught between them.

Meanwhile, I see some Pagans convinced that they know how the gods vote — or would vote, if they could produce a photo ID at the polling place.

Are these the same Pagans who sneer at that subset of evangelical Christians who apparently think that Jesus is a Republican?2)After 2,000 years of worship, he is definitely a god. And maybe he is a Republican. Or like in the TV version of American Gods, there are multiple Jesuses and one is a Republican.

If you are really a polytheist, then you must accept that the gods do not vote. Their values are not always aligned with our day-to-day political values. Really, what does Aphrodite care about Colorado’s proposal to change the redistricting process or about who wins the race for Pueblo County coroner? Should I consult Hekate about my congressional candidates?

In the context of discussing a Heathen theological question, Galina Kraskova puts the issue this way:

To assume, moreover, that the Gods share our political affiliations is incredibly narrow-minded and naïve. It might help motivate us to become involved politically, it might allow us to feel a certain connection to whatever Gods we venerate, it might even make us feel better but it is a terribly humanizing view of Powers that are well beyond our factiousness, or the limitations of temporality and human foolishness. It’s really a shame that we insist on bringing our Gods down to our short-sighted level (and I think we all do this at times).

On the other hand, statements such as, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” might be comforting but do represent a kind of crypto-monotheism, especially when people capitalize History and treat it as a force equivalent to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic Only God.

This “history” is apparently quasi-sentient and going somewhere other than to its own destruction. It is no coincident that the statement is attributed to a Unitarian minister.

Some Pagans I know (or know of) are working with various American archetypes 3)I  use Salmon too! in the sense of asking protection and blessing, which is OK. It’s like always ending a spell with “Or something better.”4)It is always good when you can rid yourself of annoying people by blessing them. That means not ordering the gods around: “[Deity], cause [Candidate] to win the election!”

In the mundane world, stories like “Witches Hex Kavanaugh” are great clickbait.5)For readers outside the USA, the article refers to Judge Brett Kavanaugh, recently added to the US Supreme Court after a contentious confirmation process in the Senate.

Here is the old-line conservative magazine National Review, suffering from a drop in circulation, taking a clickbait-ish shot at “progressive” Witches:

Notes   [ + ]

1. You don’t really hear about the Trojans’ religion as a separate thing.
2. After 2,000 years of worship, he is definitely a god. And maybe he is a Republican. Or like in the TV version of American Gods, there are multiple Jesuses and one is a Republican.
3. I  use Salmon too!
4. It is always good when you can rid yourself of annoying people by blessing them.
5. For readers outside the USA, the article refers to Judge Brett Kavanaugh, recently added to the US Supreme Court after a contentious confirmation process in the Senate.

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!

The Pueblo Revolt and Pagan History

Commemorative poster by Kiowa artist Parker Boyiddle Jr. (1947–2007).

Some time in the early 1980s, M. and I were traveling through northern Arizona on one of our VW Bug-and-cheap tent tours, when we stopped for lunch at the Hopi Cultural Center, a/k/a The Cafe at the Center of the Universe.

We could not afford much at the gift shop, but I bought this poster, which commemorates a signal event in the Pagan history of North America — the time in August 1680 when the different Pueblo tribes, separated by language and geography,1)It is at least 350 road miles from Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo, where the revolt was planned) to the Hopi villages. Teenage boys ran the distance—an event recreated in 1980. rose up simultaneously, killing Christian priests, destroying churches, and chasing the Spanish settlers back to what is today Mexico.2)The Spanish did, however, come back in the Reconquista of 1692. It is often called the “bloodless” reconquest — as in this somewhat-biased link — but it was not. Calling it the ‘bloodless reconquest” perpetuates the myth that the simple natives welcomed the Catholic priests.

The poster has hung by my desk in three or four different houses.

For a good, sensitive history of the revolt, I recommend David Roberts’ The Pueblo Revolt: The Secret Rebellion that Drove the Spaniards out of the Southwest.

Two things recently  brought the Pueblo Revolt back to my mind.

For one, last month American blogger Galina Kraskova linked to a Hindu blog, which itself was about “How Japan Dealt with the Christian Threat.” (This followed an earlier post by the same blogger on “Japan’s Defeat of Christianity and Lessons for Hindus.”) In short, during the early 17th century the Japanese shoguns all but eliminated the Catholic Christianity that had been spread by (mainly) Portuguese missionaries among the population. Their tactics included threats, torture, imprisonment, and a sort of  Buddhist Inquisition.3)For the movie version, see Silence, 2016, directed by Martin Scorsese. Now the Japanese approach is endorsed by some Hindus who advocate restricting or eliminating Christian missionary activity in India.

Pottery jar by Virgil Ortiz from “Revolt 1680/2180.”

But back to the Pueblo Revolt, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center has a show up by Virgil Ortiz, an artist from Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico, titled “Revolt 1680/2180.” It will be on display through the first week of January 2016, and I must see it.

Ortiz’s Revolt storyline transports the viewer back more than 300 years to the historical events of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, and then hurtles forward through time to the year of 2180 – introducing a cast of characters along the way. Though the narrative will be largely based on the Revolt 1680/2180 storyline that the artist has been developing for some time, Revolution will focus on the Aeronauts and other main Revolt characters: Po’Pay, Translator and the Spirit World Army, Tahu and her army of Blind Archers, Runners, and Gliders. Set in the future of 2180, the pueblos are in chaos, the invasion of Native land continues, the scourge of war rages everywhere. The Aeronauts summon their fleet and prepare for extreme warfare against the invading Castilian forces. Desperately, the Aeronauts search for any remaining clay artifacts from the battlefields. They know that challenges and persecution will continue, so it is imperative to preserve and protect their clay, culture, language, and traditions from extinction.

If you can be in Colorado Springs over the next three months, the museum is open Tuesday-Sunday.

Notes   [ + ]

1. It is at least 350 road miles from Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo, where the revolt was planned) to the Hopi villages. Teenage boys ran the distance—an event recreated in 1980.
2. The Spanish did, however, come back in the Reconquista of 1692. It is often called the “bloodless” reconquest — as in this somewhat-biased link — but it was not. Calling it the ‘bloodless reconquest” perpetuates the myth that the simple natives welcomed the Catholic priests.
3. For the movie version, see Silence, 2016, directed by Martin Scorsese.

Rodnoverie: A Quick History of Russian Pagan Revival

Kaarina Aitamurto, a Finnish scholar who has studied the Russian Pagan revival extensively, has written a short history of the Rodnoverie movement(s) and their founders and exponents for the World Religions and Spirituality website. (Think of it as an online scholarly encyclopedia.)

In the 2000s, the Rodnoverie movement grew rapidly due to the Internet. In Russia, the Rodnoverie was among the first religions to seize the opportunities of the online space. Small communities created sites and displayed photographs of their festivals online. The availability of footage of rituals also created some uniformity in the ideas of what Rodnoverie festivals should be like. Individuals in remote parts of the country could participate in online discussions and seek likeminded people in their areas. In these discussions, many revealed that they had thought that they were the only ones adhering to the pre-Christian faith and expressed their enthusiasm to find these online and offline communities.

Rodnoverie was the subject of her PhD research, and she lists her publications on her University of Helsinki website.

Pentagram Pizza with Magic Wands (Serves Five)

Years ago I made a wand of alder wood cut somewhere up Ute Pass, west of my Manitou Springs, Colo., home.

And then I made a fancier one in Craft class, a dowel with an iron rod running through it and silver wire wrapped around the handle.

I pretty much guarantee that if you stand a few yards away, close your eyes, and hold out the palms of your hands, you will be able to tell when the wand is pointed at you.

Anne Johnson, blogging at The Gods Are Bored, has something to say about wands.

How to Make a Magic Wand

The Harry Potter series made magic wands kind of popular and trendy, but wands have always been around. There are two kinds: ceremonial wands and working wands. Today, Teacher Annie is going to tell you how to make a working wand!

How Do Magic Wands Work?

Before I address the complicated question of how magic wands work, I feel like I should offer my credentials as a Pagan, so you’ll know I’m not a phony or anything. I see faeries. I worship vultures. I am crackerjack at explaining weird dreams.

Magic Wands and Romantic Love

So now we find ourselves at perhaps the #1 reason that young people want to try wands and spell work: love! Of course! You need supernatural help to get that certain someone to look your way! Okay. Before you do, please read the following cautionary tale. I didn’t write it. My good friend Anansi the Trickster Spider God didn’t write it either (although He wouldn’t mind taking credit for it).

Magic Wands and Why You Need One

If you’re a regular tourist on this site, you too might want to consider making a working wand. I’ve been writing “The Gods Are Bored” since 2005, and I’ve been alive a lot longer than that, and I have never known a time when I was more in need of a magic wand.

Read the series and learn what to do with that wand on the shelf — or how to make a new one.