“Out of the Broom Closet” — American Wicca in the late 1980s

Valdosta State University in Georgia has digitized and posted two videos by Wiccan journalists Malcolm Brenner and Lezlie Kinyon. (That is Brenner’s voice-over narration.)

This one, Out of the Broom Closet, was released in 1991 from video shot in the preceding years.

This documentary begins with a protest of Z. Budapest speaking about witchcraft at the St. Theresa Public Library in San Jose, California on July 12, 1986. What follows are formal and informal interviews of Pagan leaders explaining what Wicca is, how the general public has a misconception of what witchcraft is, and why it is important for practitioners to come “Out of the Broom Closet” to educate the public.

It and much more are cataloged in VSU’s  New Age Movements, Occultism and Spiritualism Research Library (NAMOSRL), created by librarian Guy Frost.

Religion News Service: Baltic Pagans Spurred by Conservation

People gather at the Lokstene Shrine, where Latvian Pagans hold ceremonies and annual celebrations, on May 6, 2017, in P?avi?as Municipality, Latvia. RNS photo by U?is Nastevi?s

A new article from the Religion News Service, which does not normally acknowledge polytheists, describes the long-standing Pagan revivals in the Baltic republics:

The pagan [sic] religions have been spurred especially by a growing awareness of climate change and the rise of conservation movements that tap into a deep local connection to nature and a desire to protect sacred spaces.

“In Lithuania there is a strong movement against deforestation,” said Trinkuniene.

Outside Tammealuse Hiis, the sacred grove in the Estonian forest, a sign states that as late as the 1930s people would converge on the area to meet relatives, play music and dance. “The long tradition of get-togethers died during World War II, but the power of the sacred site continued,” wrote local author Ahto Kaasik, a folklore researcher, director of the Center of Natural Sacred Sites at the University of Tartu and key figure in the movement on the sign.

Rehela often celebrates Munadepüha, a folk equivalent of Easter, at the grove. During this event his community holds rituals where members strike knives on axes to make bell-like noises, and the ritual leader gives a speech to the old gods and their forefathers.

Pagan with a Capital P

In editing the current issue of The Pomegranate, one of my “favorite” issues came up again: whether or not Pagan is capitalized.

American scholars and Pagan authors tend to say yes. There has been a small campaign to convince the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook, widely used in the news media, and the Chicago Manual of Style, widely used by university presses and serious nonfiction publisher.

It’s a matter of accurate labeling and of respect. If Muslim, Hindu, etc. get capital letters, so should Pagan.

This is not an issue that will be settled in a year, or even two or three. But I have hope.

Meanwhile, “pagan” can be used in direct quotation, particularly when it has the sense of “irreligious,” as in C. S. Lewis‘s reference to the Roman poet Ovid as “that jolly old pagan.” (But he was also a cap-P Pagan, in my view.)

On the other hand, writers in the UK tend to lowercase “pagan.” Others try to split the difference, using “pagan” for the ancients and “Pagan” for practitioners of post-1900 Pagan traditions, i.e. “Neo-Pagans.”1)And that term, popular in the 1970s–80s, is more and more supplanted by “contemporary Pagan” or “modern Pagan.”

To my editorial eye, this approach is worse than no capital P at all. Imagine someone writing this: “Ancient pagans and today’s Pagans differ in their attitudes toward animal sacrifice.”

The reader might think that someone had either forgotten to capitalize one “pagan” or mistakenly capitalized the other. Confusing.

I was happy to see recently that Koenrad Elst, a Belgian scholar of Hinduism, was using the capital-P in a broad sense.2)Although he has a PhD in the study of Hindu nationalism, he is in fact is a civil servant, not an academic, which gives him certain advantages. Here, interviewed in the Hindu Post, he implies that “Pagan” is like “Hindu”—a label imposed by outsiders that nevertheless has been adopted today:3)This is a pro-BJP (ruling party) website.

The historical definition of the term “Hindu”, brought by the Muslim invaders[1], does not define a specific worldview and practice, as the definitions of Christianity and Islam do. “Hindu” is a geographically defined slice of Paganism, viz. all Pagan (=non-Christian, non-Muslim) traditions coming from Bharat (India). This means every possible belief or practice that does not conform to either Christianity or Islam. It includes the Brahmins, the upper and lower castes, the ex-Untouchables, the Tribals, the Buddhists (“clean-shaven Brahmins”), the Jains, and many sects that didn’t even exist yet but satisfy the definition: Lingayats, Sikhs, Arya Samaj, Ramakrishna Mission, ISKCon. I am aware that many now refuse to be called “Hindu”, but since they satisfy the definition, they are Hindu, period. Elephants are not first asked whether they agree to being called elephants either.

My preference, too, is to use capital-P Pagan for all non-monotheists, ancient or modern. It is a simple and orthographically uncomplicated solution. And if anyone questions it, just refer them to the umbrella term “Hindu,” now accepted by (almost all) Hindus.

Notes   [ + ]

1. And that term, popular in the 1970s–80s, is more and more supplanted by “contemporary Pagan” or “modern Pagan.”
2. Although he has a PhD in the study of Hindu nationalism, he is in fact is a civil servant, not an academic, which gives him certain advantages.
3. This is a pro-BJP (ruling party) website.

Ave Maria, Pagan Goddess

This post started because I had the medieval Catalan song to the Blessed Virgin Mary, “Los Set Gotx” [The seven joys] stuck in my head. The tune requires someone who can sing in that high Mediterranean wail,1)A sound that seems to connect all the way from Portuguese fado to Greek rebitiko — why is that? but we less-good singers can join on the refrain: “Ave Maria gracia plena Dominus tecum Virgo serena” [Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, serene Virgin].

It is on my very short list of tunes “that I could die while going forward with that song on my lips.”

Virgin of Montserrat

Virgin of Montserrat

“Los Set Gotx” comes from the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat [Red book of Montserrat], a book compiled during the 14th century at a monastery in Catalonia where pilgrims came to worship the Virgin of Montserrat.2)One of the so-called Black Virgins, although not originally painted black as she is now.  Her feast day is April 27th.

Ever since I consciously turned Pagan at the age of 21, I have accepted her as a goddess—not the one that I give the most attention to, but a goddess nevertheless. If we follow an interpretatio romana, which was pretty common in the ancient world generally, not just with the Romans, then perhaps we could say that Mary is another name for Isis.3)The name may in fact have an Egyptian origin. The polytheism of those days not was adamantine “hard.”

How did a Judean 4)The Roman province was called Judea, not Palestine.teenage bride named Maryam 5)An Aramaic variation of the Hebrew Miriam. get to be a goddess? There are several traditional ways.

The Greeks had a word for one way apotheosis, the process by which a human is raised to divine level. There are examples of apotheosis from cultures all over the globe. A well-known painting in the U.S. Capitol shows the apotheosis of George Washington. 6)Have you lit some incense for him lately? The idea of apotheosis shades off in early Christianity to the concept of “adoptionism,” in which a deity—here the Hebrew God—”adopts” an especially virtuous man—in this case, Jesus of Nazareth—and raises him to be his divine son. Adoptionism now considered a Christian heresy, but some early followers of Jesus believed that it explained his story.

Another way might be to say a person “carried,” incarnated, or for some time embodied a deity, while after death becoming sort of fused with that deity. Consider how people see the rock star Jim Morrison (1943–1971) as having incarnated or carried the god Dionysus.

Yet another, related to the idea of apotheosis and favored by some magic workers, is the “savings bank” notion of divinity; in other words, if you put enough energy into a “container” over time, you can make a deity.

While she always received some honor from Christians, in the West a switch was thrown, so to speak, in the early Middle Ages. A body of theology grew up around her, she was more celebrated in the liturgical year, and cathedrals were dedicated to her. I think that to many Catholics she became more important than God the Father, Son, or Holy Ghost. She certainly received many “deposits” of devotional energy over the past two thousand years.

I had this blog post cooking on a back burner in my mind, and then came the fire at Notre Dame cathedral. I see that the Wild Hunt posted its predictable “Pagans respond to . . . ” article yesterday.7)I do not disagree with Jason Mankey, Byron Ballard, John Beckett, and anyone else quoted. I would like go a little farther though. (Like anyone else cares what we think.)

I am glad to say that I have seen no Pagans celebrating this event. The people who do celebrate it seem to be the usual Marxists who hate anything spiritual.8)In fact, France had no overseas colonies in the 12th century when the cathedral was commenced. And, of course, the Islamic jihadists have to try to exploit the fire too.

We Pagans could well see Notre Dame as the temple of an important goddess. So rebuild it!

Notes   [ + ]

1. A sound that seems to connect all the way from Portuguese fado to Greek rebitiko — why is that?
2. One of the so-called Black Virgins, although not originally painted black as she is now.  Her feast day is April 27th.
3. The name may in fact have an Egyptian origin.
4. The Roman province was called Judea, not Palestine.
5. An Aramaic variation of the Hebrew Miriam.
6. Have you lit some incense for him lately?
7. I do not disagree with Jason Mankey, Byron Ballard, John Beckett, and anyone else quoted. I would like go a little farther though.
8. In fact, France had no overseas colonies in the 12th century when the cathedral was commenced.

A Survey on Pagan Metaphysics and Ethics

This comes from Gwendolyn Reese, whose work has appeared several times in The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies.

She writes,

The purposes of this study are to explore the relationship between how the metaphysical and theological beliefs held by Pagans/Witches/Heathens relate to each other and to beliefs about ethics, as well as certain personal issues like your own sense of self-efficacy and the centrality of your spiritual path to your personal identity. There are questions in this survey that are designed specifically for the Pagan/Witch/Heathen community and others that were previously used in other studies with the general population and allow for comparisons. 

I acknowledge that language is problematic and previous research has revealed that there is no consensus on the label/s to apply to the groups that are often talked about as Pagans/Witches/Heathens, etc., although typically we know who we are.  The term that is most commonly adopted but far from universal is “Pagan.” For the purposes of this survey, “Pagan” is used as an umbrella term to make it easier to read.  

You may take the survey here. It is projected to require about 25 minutes of your time.

Paganism(s) Grow in Costa Rica

Carrying on Ronald Hutton’s observation from some years back that Wicca (whatever exactly Wicca is) has become a world religion, here is an article on Costa Rican Wiccans, Druids, Asatruar, and other Pagans. So they are are “world religions” now.

Costa Rica’s indigenous communities have long practiced animism, but it was only in 2010 that the first formally organized pagan group, Kindred Irminsul, was formed. At least six more such pagan groups formed in the following three years. Since 2012, the multiple pagan groups have banded together to form broader partnerships. There’s the Asociación Ásatrú Yggdrasil de Costa Rica, a group self-described as “dedicated to ancient Nordic and Scandinavian religious practices.” Its membership has grown by 60 percent since 2013, says 31-year-old Esteban Sevilla, the group’s president. There’s also the Pagan Alliance of Costa Rica, which consists of Asatruar, Roman Reconstructionists, Wiccans and Druids. .  . .

 

Petitioning the government for a formal religious status is not cheap. There’s the cost of hiring lawyers to read over the paperwork, and the fees of submitting applications. Sevilla notes it could cost his group $1,000. “We’re working on it,” he says, “but it’s expensive.” The review process is long and bureaucratic. Sevilla and his colleagues need to prepare a statement detailing their activity, get a minimum of 50 member signatures — but the more signatories, the greater the likelihood of approval — and then draft and present the religious organization’s statutes. The government can then take its time vetting the request.

Read the whole thing.

“Solitary Pagans,” a New Academic Study

Back in the mid-1990s, Nancy Mostad, then the acquisitions editor at Llewellyn, told me that they estimated that 70 percent of purchasers of books on Paganism were solitaries.Hence the immense success — by their standards — of Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.

Meanwhile, sociologist of religion Helen Berger has been studying American Pagans for decades herself. Her earlier works are A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States and (as co-author) Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States and Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self.

Her new book, Solitary Pagans: Contemporary Witches, Wiccans, and Others Who Practice Alone is available for pre-order. It will be released at Lammas. Since I probably will not read it until next fall, here is what the publisher (U. of South Carolina Press) is saying:

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.

I Will Be Buying this Book on Polytheistic Theology

New from Bibliotheca Alexandrina: Ascendant: Modern Essays on Polytheism and Theology. From the publisher:

Monotheistic assumptions so pervade our culture that even those few people born into polytheist religions (or those who grew up with no religion at all) cannot help but be influenced by them.

Polytheology raises questions that cannot be adequately addressed by answers originally developed in a monotheistic context. Because polytheism is inherently open to variation, the goal of polytheology is not to arrive at a single truth so much as to elucidate the possibilities, to honor and embrace differences, to explore the nature of the Gods and their relationship to humanity. These philosophical ideas provide a greater understanding of the Cosmos, Gods and humanity, and topics such as morality, mortality, and myth.

The contributors are Edward P. Butler, Patrick Dunn, John Michael Greer, Brandon Hensley, Wayne Keysor, Gwendolyn Reece, and Samuel Wagar.

It can go on my short but good modern polytheistic theology shelf, along with Michael York’s Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion, Jordan Paper’s The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology, and John Michael Greer’s A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism.

I do not call myself a theologian, but I do want to know what the new Pagan theologians are doing!

One more thing: if you buy a book or anything on Amazon from these links, you are helping to pay my hosting bill, and I thank you.

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?