Scratching at Wounds

Recently a friend posted this article on Facebook and asked for responses. If you don’t want to go read it, it’s called “Should the Catholic Church Acknowledge the Destruction of Classical Pagan Culture” and the byline reads “Debra Macleod, Relationship Author-Expert & Classicist.” Continue reading

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Turtles All The Way Down

When you ask Pagans where their theology comes from, you get a million answers. You hear names like Starhawk, Z Budapest, Carol Christ, RJ Stewart, and Scott Cunningham. You hear stories about secrets passed on from mothers, or revelations in the forest, or moments of clarity in the pews.

I have these stories, too, but I have something else.

I don’t remember the first time I read Small Gods, but its publication date is 1992, so I probably wasn’t a polytheist yet (that happened ten years later). But I do remember reading it after realizing that I’m a polytheist, and thinking, “Oh. That makes sense.”

Small Gods and the more aesthetically serious American Gods are the basis of my theology. The idea that gods, while real, are what we believe them to be, and take their strength from our belief, makes sense to me. It allows for the continuity of belief in ancient deities, for personal connections with them, and for the flexibility to believe in and worship them in ways that fit with our own cultures.

Sir Terry Pratchett, who died today, might have been offput by my interpretation of his work, because theology was never the point of Small Gods. The real message of that book is one that Pagans of all kinds have taken to heart: that dogma is not belief, and it certainly isn’t worship; and that strict religiosity kills religion.

I, like many Pagans, don’t have a profound commitment to my theology, which is not the same as saying that I’m not committed to my religion. I won’t fight for my theology. I got it from a Terry Pratchett book, for gods’ sake, and it might change if I ever read something better.

But that seems unlikely.

RIP Sir Terry. You touched so many of us in so many ways.

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Sunday Session Two

Kat Robb “Facing the Dark: Pagans and Terminal Illness”

There are very few resources for Pagans dealing with terminal illness. Robb conducted a survey asking Pagans who deal with terminal or chronic disease how it affects their lives. She got a variety of answers, from “It doesn’t affect me at all” to long descriptions of how priorities and attitudes have changed in response to illness.

“Everybody deals with it differently. It’s like birth.” In many Gaelic cultures it was believed that death was the true birth, and that time on this earth is transitory.

Joan deArtemis and Joseph Greene “Finding the Seeds that Grow in the Darkness: Using the Tarot as a Tool of Healing in Dark Times”

Divination is a part of spiritual care for Pagans.

Joan starts with a brief (modern) history of the Tarot, beginning with the Waite-Smith deck. She describes reading at large events for people who are in some kind of pain, and reading for gay men in the early 80s as AIDS began to ravage the community. She says that Tarot and divination are some ways in which Pagans help each other get through the most difficult times of our lives. In Christianity this is known as pastoral care, but she suggests that “spiritual care” is more appropriate for Pagans.

Psychotherapy works on the interactions between actions, thoughts, and feelings. Different schools or methods approach these interactions from various angles for various goals as appropriate for the patient or situation. In spiritual care the methods are usually cognitively based and focus on the here and now. Supportive therapy, crisis intervention, and solution-focused counseling are the most common methods in spiritual care.

Supportive therapy is conversational and non-confrontive, allowing the patient to talk through the issues. The goals of crisis intervention are to reduce anxiety, increase coping, and mobilize resources. This is a more directive method, so the therapist is more involved in directing the client’s actions and needs (breathing exercises, discovering support systems, etc.). Solution-focused counseling is often very structured. It uses scaling–“On a scale of 1 to 10, how willing are you to…”, etc. “Miracle question”: what would it look like if you woke up one day and a miracle has solved your problem while you slept? The assumption is that the client knows, on some level, what the solution is.

All of these methods are at play in Tarot readings. The miracle question is less emphasized, but there are several points in a reading where the reader can ask the querent similar questions. Joan emphasizes that Tarot as she practices it is not fortune-telling. She doesn’t know the future, but she says that “we all have a sense of our own future,” and Tarot can help us articulate that.

As Pagans we have a different set of mores from the larger Judeo-Christian-based society. Things that we may consider reasonable in some situations (assisted suicide?) may run up against reporting requirements if you are in a professional capacity. Tarot readers should also know their pay grade–spiritual advisors are not mental health professionals.

Tarot uses images and storytelling to accomplish therapeutic goals. Joseph urges people to integrate their spiritual counselors into their professional therapy if it’s appropriate.

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Sunday Session One

Kimberly Kirner “Environmental Paganisms: Affect and Action in Right Relationship to the Earth”

This is jumping off of research that Kirner has been doing for some time. She presented some initial findings at last year’s conference and more complete analysis at the American Academy of Religion in November 2014.

She has found that there is no correlation between animist belief and greater environmental sustainability. On the other hand, there is some correlation between “nature-centered spiritual practice” and somewhat greater commitment to sustainability compared to the general population, but not to actual household sustainability. To measure sustainability she asked questions about diet and goods and energy consumption.

She found that there was a breakdown between commitment to learning about nature and sustainability and action to increase sustainability.

The only variable she measured that correlated with positive sustainable action was political (rather than spiritual) commitment to environmental activism. She notes that Paganism, “by its distributed nature, lacks” community support for sustainability that political commitment often fosters.

She notes the differences between the broad categories of indigenous animist systems and “contemporary Euro-centric animisms” (greatly generalized here). Most importantly for environmental action are the individualistic and globalized ethics of Euro-centric systems compared to more community- and locality-oriented indigenous systems. Euro-centric systems also have more generalized ethics with few if any modes of enforcement, compared to often detailed codes of behavior with specific consequences in indigenous systems.

For most Pagans nature is an idealized concept with which we engage in ritual. It is “controlled and contained,” and can be invoked and dismissed with low personal stakes. On the other hand, action-centric spirituality is “embedded in everyday relationships,” and interacts with nature on its own terms as “an active agent.” She supposes, but needs to further research, that whether individual Pagans practice more ritual- or action-centric spirituality has to do with how they enter Paganism in the first place.

Wendy Griffin “Crafting a Voice from the Archetypal Darkness”

“Pagan studies academics remain largely absent” from the discussion of climate change.

Griffin calls for a new narrative about humanity’s relationship to environments and itself. She advocates turning away from the idea of capitalism as the source of salvation. She tells us about a workshop she attended by Starhawk, in which group and individual discussions were very vague and often didn’t address climate change at all, although that was the stated purpose of the exercise.

Francesca Ciancimino Howell “The Other-than-Human and the Dark: A Pagan Deep Ecological View”

Deep ecology “is an interdisciplinary and inter-faith path.”

Her paper combines deep ecology, Gaia theory, New Cosmology, and others.

“What is a Pagan view of the dark? And what is a Pagan deep ecological view?” Do Pagans truly celebrate the dark or do we also other it along with the rest of western society? Howell proposes that we do other the dark, just as we other nature, and we deny ourselves as part of nature. This creates in us an imbalance, and “cuts us off from all that is.”

“We share this planet with lots of other people,” some like us (like other primates) and some with no bodies at all. Communion with nature produces joy in human beings and the desire for more communion.

The human soul is “dark, chaotic, primal.”

Our ancestors did not have the luxury of denial of darkness. They did not know about black holes, but they knew about death, illness, and destruction, and they integrated it into their cosmology and their daily lives.

Humanity is literally made of star stuff, the remains of the deaths of cosmic bodies (Tiamat).

Living Systems Theory posits that “it is in chaos that living systems grow and evolve healthfully. In bifurcation we actually move towards more healthy growth.”

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Saturday Sessions Three and Four

A. Andersdottir “Paganism in Numbers: How Numerical Systems Influence Spiritual Concepts and Shape Spiritual Culture”

Systems of accounting and other numerical systems influence interpretations of the world and events, performance of spirituality, etc. An example from wider culture is fear of the number 13 (triskadecaphobia), which can be so strong that many buildings do not have a floor numbered 13, and many cities do not have a 13th Street (though they may have a 12th).

Andersdottir advocates understanding of the numerology and mathematical systems of ancient and non-Western cultures.

[FCJ – the following, as with everything in this live blog, is a report of the talk. I haven’t done the research]

Jain Mathematics

-there are infinite ways to solve an equation, so the elegance of the method is as important as the answer

-first recorded instance of ideas of infinity

-the concept of the number zero

-swastika – made by making a circle cut with 4 equal lines, and rearranging the pieces

This system can be helpful for Pagans through its pluralism and lack of emphasis on concrete answers. It “discourages possessiveness of roles and duties,” and is “antithetical to creationism/apocalypse/rapture,” preferring a more cyclical model.

Dogon of Mali

-esoteric and secret traditions

-sophisticated astronomy

-value duality and pairs

Fractals in Sub-Saharan Africa

The art and other structures of various Sub-Saharan African culture display the replication of design that is definitive of fractals.


-quipu accounting system: a series of strings with various kinds of knots, intelligible across languages

Mangareva (French Polynesia)

-binary system

M. Macha NightMare “The Cailleach, the Cumaen Sybil, and the Pythia: Voices from the Underground”

Goddesses and female prophetic figures associated with caves.

The Cailleach is a pre-Celtic goddess (Blue Hag, Hag of Beara, etc.). She is associated with a number of mountains and caves in Scotland and Ireland.

The Cumaen Sybil is a figure from Italy. Cumae appears in the Aeneid and Strabo’s Geography. The Sybil lived in a cave (plutonion) that emitted noxious gas. The cave had “a hundred mouths” and the Sybil could hear their voices and interpret their prophecies. In the Aeneid she was 700 years old and lived to 1000. She asked for immortality from Apollo but did not ask for eternal youth to go with it.

The Pythia was the priestess (or priestesses) of Delphi and an oracle of Apollo. The temple is built over a chasm that releases noxious gas.

Starr Goode “Sheela na gig: Dark Goddess of Europe”

“Renewed interest in the Sheela is part of the great psychic event of our time: the return of the Goddess.”

The Sheelas date to the middle ages (many are carved on Catholic churches). She is an embodiment of wild, mysterious, chaotic life force, and is defined by the sacred and aggressive display of her vulva.

She is a guardian of entrances and often appears over doors and other portals, or beside windows.

Goode connects the Sheela to figures of Baubo from Greece, as well as Medusa. She seems to be arguing for universal prehistoric goddess religion, since she’s mentioned it a few times, and she hasn’t brought up the Celtic migration to Anatolia in the pre-Classical period.

In ancient cave art, vulva-like drawings occasionally mark entrances into deeper caves.

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Saturday Keynote: Vivianne Crowley

“Stepping Out of the Shadows and Into the Light: Evolution and Tensions in the Future of Contemporary Paganism”

Paganism has benefitted from attention by anthropology, sociology, study of religion, etc., when researchers have approached with sympathy and allowed Pagans to express their own experiences. Academic work on Paganism has helped communities see how trends and movements in Paganisms reflect trends and movements in society at large. It has also helped legitimize Paganism/s as religion.

Crowley realized that “Wicca had mainstreamed” when she heard discussion of it at a conference on the study of religion in Stockholm around 2013. She says that currently we are at the end of “day one of the Pagan Project,” when innovators and early adopters have become ancestors. The existence of figures such as the Zells and other major innovators gives Pagans in the 21st century a history.

Liquid modernity (a phrase coined by Zygmunt Bauman) is the breakdown of perceptions of previously important structures (mistrust of government, media, church, etc.). This also affects “the great monolithic religions,” exhibited, e.g., in the proliferation of independent Protestant churches.

Crowley understands modern Paganism as a response to the human desire for a structure that acknowledges and allows the animalistic side of the human spirit. People were looking for sexual, bodily, and spiritual liberation and connection with nature. We can see this longing in literature and poetry of the 19th century, and often manifested in calls to Pan. After World War I there was a similar movement to return to the “natural world,” responding to the horrors of the trenches. Movements during these two periods were also drawn towards goddess worship. Charles Leland and the figure of Aradia emerged from this draw, as did Gerald Gardner.

The effect of the British empire is important: while the British were sending people out to administer non-Western places through Western practices, they were exposing such administrators to other cultures, and “often the colonizers were captured by those they were colonizing.” British people became Buddhist and Hindu, and brought back ideas of magic and goddess worship.

As witchcraft gained popularity, people were “attracted by the allure of the dark,” and by the suggestion that witches are (and must be) special people. Paganism and witchcraft continue to be “liquid” and alluring, in that they can be what the practitioner needs and wants from them. As Paganism matures, it has jettisoned or de-emphasized some of the more “counter-cultural” elements to allow it to come out into the light and become more mainstream.

“Wicca-lite” is the divesting of religion from witchcraft, and is seen in the proliferation of popular books on spell-casting. “It becomes a technique that anybody can learn.” You don’t have to be chosen by the gods or spirits, or have the correct ancestry. Magic becomes a self-help process (e.g., books like The Secret and The Source).

“Wicca-dark”? When a movement goes mainstream, and gets rid of all of the less culturally acceptable elements, it leaves a kind of hole. In the past couple of decades we’ve seen the emergence and growth of Satanic movements, and other “dark” kinds of Paganism and witchcraft to restore those occult elements. Aside from that, the proliferation of Paganisms has lead to a lot of eclecticism in contemporary practices, and many younger Pagans aren’t as aware of the history of modern Paganism or interested in investigating the roots of their practices, and in many cases aren’t interested in the “religion” at all, but enjoy occasionally attending events and in some sense being spectators of Paganism.

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Saturday: Session Two

Sabina Magliocco “Animal Sacrifice in Modern Paganisms”

Recently there has been increased debate in Pagan circles regarding animal sacrifice. It has seen some resurgence, but remains “extremely rare and limited to private rituals.” Magliocco’s paper is based on study of written sources rather than personal experience.

Religious animal sacrifice is legal in the US. The word “sacrifice” means at the most basic level “to make sacred.” In ancient usage it does not imply renunciation or death. [In Greco-Roman culture, animal sacrifice was the main source of meat for food]. Animal sacrifice raises “the status of the sacrificer” because it is expensive–if you sacrifice your cow, you usually get to eat it, but you don’t have a cow anymore.

Ancient sacrifice could include things other than food, such as incense, hymns, and other forms of praise. Howevery, Christianity was the first ancient religion to completely reject animal sacrifice. This had effects on local economies, as the rising popularity of Christianity meant that fewer people were buying meat in the markets.

Wicca and related Paganisms generally do not see a necessity for animal sacrifice–Magliocco cites the Charge of the Goddess and the Wiccan Rede. Urban concentration and fear of bad press have also contributed to the lack of animal sacrifice in modern Paganism. It is often rumored to occur in more rural contexts, where people have access to livestock and the kill to slaughter and butcher it.

“Animal sacrifice is presented as private, remote, rural; not terribly different from what happens when an animal is slaughtered and eaten.”

Magliocco proposes that the “antistructural” status of animal sacrifice is part of its recent resurgence: some Pagans see it as a way to differentiate themselves from Wiccan and related traditions, and a way to recreate a more “authentic” experience of ancient religion.

Reconstructionist traditions are especially interested in that more authentic experience, but not all recons seek to revive animal sacrifice.

Citing Sam Webster: “Central to the experience of the gods in ancient paganism.”

Animal sacrifice may also be a way for some Pagans to continue to separate themselves from Christianity and, in some cases, a way to restore the practices of ancestors who grieve the loss of their practices.

“Arguments based on the will of the gods tend to be based on personal gnosis.”

In some traditions (such as Vodun), animals are believed to contain a life force that literally feeds the spirits when their blood is spilled. Webster, working with neo-Platonism, argues that sacrifice does not satisfy the gods, but changes the sacrificer.

The ethics of sacrifice: many practitioners make a point of getting their animals from known sources, usually small farms (if they don’t raise them themselves). In many cases animals must also be seen to have given their permission to be sacrificed, based on interpretation of their behavior around the time of the rite.

Defenses of animal sacrifices cite the modern western relationship to meat as food, pointing out that “the swift, painless sacrifice of a well-loved, humanely raised animal” is preferential to the practices of factory farming.

Ultimately, the resurgence of animal sacrifice is part of the evolution of Paganisms in the 21st century, thought Maglicco believes that it is too costly to become widespread.

Jeffrey Albaugh “Cultural Complexes and Individualism in Contemporary Paganisms”

Individualism is a major part of American culture. There are four major traditions of American individualism: Biblical–the creation of an ethical/religious community; Republican–freedom and justice, particularly embodied by the Declaration of Independence and T. Jefferson; Utilitarian–embodied by Franklin, in which everyone has the right to pursue success; Expressive–personal identity, emotional expressiveness.

“A complex formed around an archetypal core.” Albaugh defines an archetype as “an unknowable pattern in the psyche” that structures events, feelings, and expressions around it. He shows a Mandelbrott pattern as a visual example. He calls a complex a collection of “events and experiences… associated with the archetypal core” that illicits specific feelings when activated.

Complexes can exist on a cultural level–people can behave stereotypically and predictably. Albaugh uses all of this as a baseline to discuss the debate surrounding animal sacrifice in modern Pagan circles. He notes organizations, such as ADF, that officially renounce animal sacrifice, and individuals who practice it.

Many contemporary Pagan traditions claim to “work with the gods,” or consider the gods as friends. There are emerging traditions that envision the gods/ancestors as giving structure to the world, in a more top-down conceptualization. “Classical” modern Paganisms (Wicca, etc.) are quite mystical, identify the divine as a “higher self,” are concerned with ecology, and are often pantheistic. Albaugh differentiates this from Reconstructionist Paganisms, which are perhaps reacting to Wicca as an external authority, and which criticize mystical traditions “for being too unrefined and amorphous.” Albaugh suggests that “Classical” and “Reconstructionist” Paganisms as he has defines them can be productively thought of as “sects” of contemporary Paganism. For him this has been a healing observation, allowing him to understand the differences in terms other than “right” and “wrong.”

Murtaugh anDoile “‘For as Summer Follows Winter’: Cycles of ‘Darkness and Light” in the Pagan (and Magical) Movements in the Last 100 Years”

This is a piece developed for the newly launched Pagan History Project.

We go through dark and light periods culturally. The dark periods are those in which we grow, and the light ones are those in which we expand, eventually reaching a point where we break into small groups and return to a dark period.

The Spiritualist movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries is an example of this cycle. It began in the late 1840s and peaks by the end of WWI, but came under attack in the ’20s.  It has survived by splintering into small groups, some of which morphed into large organization (e.g., Universalist Unitarians). There was a cult/Satanic scare in the ’30s and ’40s, based on racial fears, fear of Nazis, and the appearance of groups like I AM and New Thought, and exacerbated by pulp fiction.

The dark cycle begins again in the 1940s. Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard were active with the Babalon Working; Gerald Gardner published High Magic’s Aid in 1949. Movements like these continue into the ’50s, when the Witchcraft Act in England was abolished and Gardnerian Wicca picks up speed. The ’60s and ’70s were a heyday for Paganism in the US. Many, many familiar Pagan groups and publications are born in this period, and Paganism and witchcraft begin to become commercialized. The ’70s sees the beginning of the splintering. The Witch Wars (arguments about authenticity, etc.) went on mostly in Green Egg, and the Covenant of the Goddess was founded as an attempt to bring unity back into the movement. Paganism goes underground in the eastern US.

By the end of the ’70s Paganism starts to emerge again, and the ’80s is another era of growth. Founders of traditions from the ’50s and ’60s die, creating power vacuums and encouraging growth in other directions; Solitary practice becomes more popular. In the late ’80s things splinter again. The Satanic Panic in the ’80s and ’90s contributes to problems, and arguments about authenticity resurface. Pop culture portrays Paganism in various ways (The Craft, Buffy, etc.).

The internet has contributed to the growth of Paganism (and divisions between Paganisms) in the last couple of decades. The authenticity debate continues, and there are debates about transgender issues, Wiccanate privilege, and animal sacrifice. [There are also major issues surrounding racism, especially in Reconstructionist circles].

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