Pentagram Pizza from the Godmother’s Recipe

pentagrampizza• The archaeologist Margaret Murray played a key part in the origins of Wicca — and she was occasionally a magic-worker herself, by her own admission in her memoir My First Hundred Years (1963).

Ethan Doyle White examines her role in a guest post at Adventures in History and Archaeology, noting, “Murray’s interest in magic was not solely personal, but rather had a strong professional dimension to it as well.”

Mama Fauna goes Herne-hunting in Alaska, with unpredictable results.

• John Michael Greer writes an essay, “A Wind that Tastes of Ashes,” on the recent flap over accusations that “fascists” (never defined) and the “New Right” (never defined) are infiltrating Pagan groups. “After all, there’s another kind of power that’s just as illegitimate and destructive, and that’s the power of demagogy: the brute force of a frightened and furious mob whipped up into a frenzy by rhetoric of the sort we’re examining.”

Renn Faire: “Disneyland for Rednecks”

abandoned-renaissance-fair-26133

An abandoned Rennaisance Faire site near Fredericksburg, Virginia (Roadtrippers.com).

“Wiccan, as well as satanic, symbolism was in nearly every gift shop.”
— from a Yelp.com review of the Georgia Rennaisance Faire, quoted in Well Met (237).

Rachel Lee Rubin’s Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture is, obviously, not about contemporary Paganism, but the two topics cross paths occasionally, as the quote above shows. Reading made me think once again that most studies of Paganism in the United States, at least, tend to shy away from class issues, although gender issues are plowed through in all directions.

Yes, the “redneck Disneyland” description comes from someone in the book. And there is this quote from a participant about Renn Faire visitors as a whole: “The ones who hate their [mundane] jobs wear really great costumes.” When you think of a song like “Take This Job and Shove It,” what social group comes to mind?

Rubin traces the Renn Faire phenomenon from one created in the mid-1960s outside Los Angeles as a fundraiser for the left-leaning Pacific Radio network. So that was “countercultural” in the 1960s sense. But it is not the 1960s anymore. Who goes to Renn Faires? The (mostly) white lower-middle and working class, I would say.

Somewhat like the Renn Faires, the Pagan movement in America was mostly birthed by leftish intellectual bohemians (but not totally). Decades later, should the movement still be described that way? I don’t think so. But who is researching this question?

And apparently the “crackpot religion” of Wicca is one of those currently countercultural things to have found a home on the Renn Faire circuit, along with homosexuality and polyamory (216).

As H-Net’s reviewer wrote,

At least two questions drive the narrative and analysis of Well Met. One concerns the potential centrality of the Renaissance faire to our understanding of the counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s. Is the faire essential to the story of hippie explorations into communalism, antimodernism, and craft revival, as well as rock and folk music revivals? Rubin gives a resounding, and rather persuasive, yes. Another question that the author specifically poses in her introduction is, “To what concrete personal, political, and cultural uses can a group of Americans put a past that, for the most part, is not their own?” (p. 3). Answers to that question have evolved over the faire’s history.

There is (who knew? not me) a chapter devoted to a subgenre of romance novels set at Renaissance Faires, of which I can say only that that is not as strange as romance novels set in Amish communities, which is another subgenre.

A Wicca Center in Thailand

The Ace of Cups coffee bar and occult-supply shop (Daily Mail).

There is a long tradition of metaphysical bookstores and occult-supply shops serving as the public face of Pagan groups. “Owner Wine Kongsorn said he opened the café in a bid to unite the community of Wiccans in Bangkok.”

And exactly how is “Wiccan” defined in Bangkok? The source is the (UK) Daily Mail, which is not known for careful reporting on new religious movements. Sounds like a great research opportunity for someone in Pagan studies.

But the Ace of Cups also serves cappucino, so I’m in.

Just more evidence that Ronald Hutton was right in labeling Wicca the first world religion to spring from England.

Strange Doings in Hagley Woods

This “cold” English murder case caught my attention because of the involvement of Professor Margaret “Grandmother of Wicca” Murray, who apparently injected herself into it, somewhat after the fact, with tales of witches.

(Never mind that “wych elm” does not mean “witch elm.”)

Some British writers have attempted to cast the geographically close murder of Charles Walton as a “ritual sacrifice.”

But wait, maybe it’s not witches, maybe it was Nazis!

Read the whole thing. Fascinating stuff.

 

Wicca Again as the “Designated Other”

pasque flowersPasque flowers blooming in a thin layer of pine duff atop a boulder. I love them for their precarious and improbably habitat.

Spring is slowly coming to the forest, and within it the offer of new chances, a feeling that you might get it right this time.

Travel and editorial crises have killed my blogging for the past couple of weeks. I have this huge backlog of topics and probably won’t get to most of them.

But let’s start with the topical stuff. Wicca continues to move towards being the Designated Other in the American religious scene. It used to be “What will the Jews say?” or “How will the Jehovah’s Witnesses react?” to name just two groups that had their conflicts with the dominant religious paradigm.

At the same time, to many members of the Chattering Classes, Wicca (and other forms of Paganism) is not quite a real religion. Therefore, you can have even more fun when writing about it: “Mike Pence’s New Fan Club: Wiccans.

Yes, how do Wiccans react to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act??

The religion is real to the practitioners, of course — but some of them have a little fun with the question too. (Marry a horse?)

It’s funny how things change. When the original Religious Freedom Restoration Act sailed through Congress and was signed by President Clinton, it was all about protecting the Native American Church — the Peyote Way. How colorful and traditional!

Now some columnists and bloggers put “religious freedom” in scare quotes, like it’s something icky than can only be handled with your Gloves of Irony.

As a follower of a minority religion, I still think that religious freedom (no scare quotes) is pretty damn important.

But if you want to get beyond all the idiots screaming for the social-nuking of Indiana in 140 characters or less, go to someone with a sense of the evolution of law, like Washington Post columnist and law professor Eugene Volokh.

Here is the short version: “Religious exemptions, RFRA carveouts, and ‘who decides?’ ”  He contrasts the popularity of religious freedom with the demands for limiting it for the larger good:

Yet surely religious exemptions can’t always be granted, and there can’t even be a very strong general rule of granting such exemptions (much as there is a strong rule against the government banning speech because of its content, at least outside traditionally recognized exceptions). There can’t be religious exemptions from laws banning murder, rape, theft, trespass, libel, and the like. There probably shouldn’t be such exemptions, at least outside narrow zones, from tax law, copyright law, employment law, and more.

For a longer explanation of the how Congress and the courts have wrestled with these topics and how players and teams have shifted, read his piece “Many liberals’ (sensible) retreat from the old Justice Brennan/ACLU position on religious exemptions.”

How to Ruin the Mysteries, or Religion is not Moral

In retrospect, I was lucky that the high priest of my first coven (mid-1970s) was something of a scoundrel. He was always tapping people for money and favors (“Could you fix my truck’s clutch? Oh, you’re a welder? I have some projects . . .”) — all for the good of the Craft, of course.

He was convinced of his own sexual magnetism and was always coming-on to women, in addition to the fact that he and his wife (the coven HPS) were off-and-on “swingers,” as the term was then. I discovered this when I dropped by the covenstead one afternoon and found them having a slightly awkward getting-to-know you conversation with a couple they had met somehow for that purpose. Needless to say, offers were extended to my partner and me, which we did not accept.

He could play members of the coven against each other, but treated us better than “cowans,” against whom any lie or stunt was permissible. Once when an old friend of mine, a professional calligrapher, did a large piece for him in exchange for a promised piece of silver jewelry (he was also a middling silversmith), and said piece of jewelry kept receding into the future, he brushed off my questions with “He’s a cowan, he can wait.” (The guy is still waiting.)

Most of what he said about his past, training, etc. was probably 90 percent bullshit.

And there was other stuff. But — I cannot over-emphasize this — over the three years I was part of that group (before M. and I finally left over something or other), some doors to the Mysteries were opened.

Both he and she could be effective ritualists and magicians. I can recall some intensely spiritually erotic ritual, for instance, that did not involve any swapping of bodily fluids. I was introduced to the entire Craft subculture as it then existed — including some early small hotel-based “cons”— and found a psychic space that only two years before I had not dreamt existed.

So I learned something. I learned the the Craft is a mystery religion, parts of which are not for kids or public view, and that the Mysteries are not about conventional morality. From that I learnt that one can be a good high priestess, let’s say, without being “moral.”

Later, a professor of Eastern religion would explain to me that Asian religious renunciates wore red, orange, or saffron robes to warn people that they were “hot” in a spiritual sense, but also with an echo of the slang term for sexy.

Yeah, religion — the “juice,” not the social organizations — can be sexy. Hindu gurus are notorious for sexual scandals, as are some Zen teachers, Protestant ministers, Catholic priests . . . you could go on.

Morality ought to be filed under Philosophy, not Religion.

An issue that affects both new religions (like various new Paganisms) and scholars of religion is the enormous, often unrecognized, cultural meme that “religion” equals not just a type of monotheism with a Holy Book, but Protestant Christianity in particular.

When I read about a Wiccan “church” that “followed a Christian format, complete with sermons and congregants sitting in rows, and its High Priestess wore a clerical collar similar to what Christian priests and ministers wear,”  I thought, there it is again, the dead hand of Protestantism on the back of your neck.

When a prominent Pagan writer publicized how she had flounced out of a forty-year-old Wiccan organization because it would not issue a statement on her favorite political issue, I thought of religion scholar Russ McCutcheon’s writing about the naive presumption that “religion equals morality [with] a responsibility for securing the fate of the nation-state or cooking up some therapeutic recipe for attaining self-knowledge or happiness’ (from Critics not Caretakers).

Whatever it is that makes the Craft special, I cannot think of a better way to kill it. Is there a little bit of a split here between those who lean, for instance, toward the approach of Apocalyptic Witchcraft and those who apparently would rather be social workers with pentagrams?

Those who seek the Mysteries, be they in the name of Dionysus, Nyx, Odin, Hecate, or whomever, have to understand that the Mysteries come without an official Book of Instructions.

I know, everything is connected and the personal is political. But does turning your position as, let us say, high priestess into a podium for pronouncing ex officio on this political issue or that one lead to a hollowing out of the magical self?

Or if religion is not about morality, then what does your religious position matter?

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.

Blogging Break Over, Book Stuff Ahead

I have taken a brief and unwanted break from blogging, but I hope that it is over. First the MacBook Pro that I use for writing and blogging developed a weird, possibly demonic (or daemonic) directory corruption that flummoxed even the specialists up at Voelker Research. About the same time, my desk/computer chair broke, which felt like a sign. A sign that I should just go hiking and read more novels, possibly. And ponder some vivid and meaningful dreams.

That was wonderful, but I have to give a couple of talks next week, and I needed to prepare. So there I was out on the veranda with a legal pad and a stack of books and print-outs, preparing. If I have learned anything in teaching it is that I am not as good at “winging it” as I like to think I am—unless it is a course that I have already taught ten times over.

So while I am doing that, here is an interview with Doug Ezzy about his new book, Sex, Death, and Witchcraft: A Contemporary Pagan Festival.

The book is both a rich ethnographic account of controversial Pagan festival and a provocative reflection on the role of emotions, symbols, and ritual in theories of religion.  The festival involves “a recreation of the Witches’ sabbat . . .  It’s R-rated, it contains adult themes, nudity and sex references”, according to Harrison — one of the festival participants I interviewed.  The theory develops what Graham Harvey and I are calling “relational theory” in the study of religion.

It is on my reading list.

And speaking of reading, expect more book reviews here over the next few weeks.

Passing of Margot Adler—Will NPR Admit She was Wiccan?

For those of you not on Facebook, this was the announcement of Margot Adler’s passing, posted by her son, Alex.

Old friends, long time fans, today at 4am Margot breathed easily for the first time in two weeks. Later today, at 10:30am she was pronounced deceased.

Her condition had been getting much worse over the weeks and months and the brain radiation (which she had a treatment of scheduled today, tomorrow, and wednesday) was thought to help her double vision, since it was the cause.

Well, Margot and John both won’t be seeing double anymore, but they will be seeing each other for the rest of time.

With much love and difficulty do I write this,

Her son, Alex

I told M. about it as she was listening to National Public Radio’s  “All Things Considered,” and her first question was why NPR had not mentioned it, given Margot’s many years as a reporter there.  Maybe they cannot move that fast. When they do, do you think that they will mention that she was composing hymns to the Olympian deities as a teenager, let alone that she was a Gardnerian Witch?

I suspect that they will be more comfortable with her politics and status as a “Red-diaper Baby” than with her religious views. Link to the Facebook tribute page.

UPDATE: At least the NPR blog mentioned it, but putting it after the facts that she was Alfred Adler’s grand-daughter (though she never met him) and that she wrote about vampires: “Margot had a long-standing interest in the occult.”

Ah, “the occult.”

UPDATE 2: You will find more updates on news media treatments of Margot’s passing in the comments.

The Danger in Being “Ministerial”

When I saw a headline on The Wild Hunt, “Wiccan Minister Kathryn Jones to Run for Office in Pennsylvania,” it stopped me in my tracks. Not because Ms. Jones is running for office, but the use of the term “minister.”

Immediately I thought of John Michael Greer’s recent column in Witches & Pagans 28, “A Bad Case of Methodist Envy: Copying Christian Models of Clergy is a Pagan Dead End.” Geer rightly points out that today’s concept of “clergy” is quite different from the Pagan past:

There were no seminaries or divinity schools for [ancient] Greek priests and priestesses, and the thought of asking a priest of priestess for moral of spiritual counseling would have seemed absurd to the ancient Greeks — you went to a philosopher for that, for Apollo’s sake! Nor, for that matter, did they perform wedding ceremonies. . . .  [in Egypt] being a priest or priestess was a career, one of the professions open to the literate . . . . this kind of priesthood included few or no “pastoral” functions as we know them.

The essence of priest/esshood is the relationship with the deity. You maintain a shrine, hold ceremonies, and otherwise put people into their own relationships with the deity. You may serve as a conduit of power — even today at some Japanese Shinto shrines (perhaps the nearest thing to Classical Paganism in a functional way), you can pay a small fee to have your new Toyota blessed by a priest.

At the other pole is the pastoral function. Pastor is Latin for “sheepherder” (as we say out West), and its is the function of nudging and exhorting and teaching and correcting the “flock” to  keep them living according to the commandments of the religion.

As Greer writes, in ancient Paganism those functions were usually not combined in one person — although here Thorn Coyle writes about how she combines them, together with her writing.

In my experience, the “clergy” issue emerged in American Paganism in the 1980s. Before that, the coven model was more clandestine.

A few “church” organizations existed before then, such as the Church of Wicca, and some Pagan groups signed up with the Universal Life Church. Such actions, in my recollection, were often at least partly about avoiding taxes, such as declaring the covenstead to be a “church” and hence exempt from property tax. The Covenant of the Goddess was formed as a credentialing and networking organization in 1975.

M. and I were married by our coven HP and HPS in 1977 in a ceremony that was both religious and legal, because Colorado does not require any sort of clergy credentials to perform a wedding. Perhaps because of the then-youthful Pagan demographic, performing legal weddings was a growing issue for Pagans, and many states do require some kind of organizational credentials.

Chaplaincy issues (hospital, prison, military) arose a little later, and in those cases, the bureaucratic monster had to be appeased. This issue Greer does not address, but it is a  big one. How do you keep governmental and social structures from turning you into their concept of a “religious minister,” i.e.,  service-provider?

This need for credentials to show to bureaucrats was an impetus for the founding of Cherry Hill Seminary. I was neutral about CHS for a while, but after attending one of their seminars in April 2013, I gained more appreciation of what they are doing.

Contrary to what some excitable voices have shouted, CHS is not trying to define Paganism for the outside world. Nor will they make you a witch or priestess; in fact, they say that their courses “[supplement]  existing ritual and magical skills with training for professional ministry and pastoral counseling.”

I expect that students should learn something about counseling, and the laws pertaining thereto, something about the academic study of religion, and something about the history of contemporary Paganism and its philosophy, for starters. And they will learn the suitable jargon to speak at interfaith luncheons and in meetings with prison administrators. (Just saying that you are Lord Moontoad from the Coven of the Sacred Toadstool is not enough.)

But we walk a knife’s edge. If we end up thinking that acting “ministerial” is all there is to it, then we Wiccans, for example, would be just Methodists with pentagrams. It’s not about counseling, it’s not about social programs, it’s not about “saving the Earth” (Unpack the hubris in that phrase, if you have the time!) — being Pagan is about a relationship with the deities at all levels. At least CHS is honest in saying that they cannot give you that. They might teach you how to talk about it in a polished way that other religious professionals can recognize.

Consider the issue of counseling. My first encounter in a Pagan context was hearing about Z Budapest’s unsuccessful attempt  in the 1970s (and she was not the only one) to beat an illegal-fortunetelling charge by saying that Tarot reading was “counseling.”

Historically speaking, she was right. When polytheists needed counseling, they asked Grandma, performed divination or had a specialist do it for them, or maybe (if they had the resources) consulted an oracle. Or perhaps they took sought visions or other supernatural guidance.

Monotheists, however, asked a Holy Book specialist to explain what the Book said, as modified by the commentaries of generations of specialists (hadith, Talmud, etc.). Drop the Holy Book component, and you have the modern counselor, a 20th-century phenomenon.

That is the ministerial/pastoral function, focusing on people’s needs, as opposed to the priestly function, focusing on the cults of the gods — our relationships and how we acknowledge them.

I think this is a bigger issue than “Shouldn’t we have paid clergy?” (Consider the Mormons, who have a worldwide religion administered mostly by non-paid clergy, albeit within a tight, top-down hierarchy.) I have argued before for the “tent, not a cathedral” model — set up structure for a limited time and purpose, then collapse it.

In the long run, how can Pagan religions function as “religions” in the generally accepted sense, while resisting cultural pressures to turn them into “Methodists”?

POSTSCRIPT: A follow-up post is here.