Friday, January 05, 2018

AAR 2017 Annual Meeting - I

Once again, with help from the Covenant of the Goddess, I attended the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, this year in Boston.

As in most years, some Pagans planned a field trip to a local site or sites of interest to Pagans.  This year the place was obvious:  Salem, Massachusetts.  Under the guidance of Gwendolyn Reece, three of us (Gwendolyn, Jeffrey Albaugh, and me) lunched at the Tavern on the Green in the historic Hawthorne Hotel in Salem to plan our day.  I’d dined there before so I knew we’d like it.  The rest of our party (Caroline Tully, Chas Clifton, Sabina Magliocco, Kim Kirner) who had missed the train we took rendezvoused with us and we proceeded from there.

Our first stop after lunch was Nu Aeon, a store owned by a local companion, Gypsy Ravish.  She invited us into the Temple of Stars, a beautiful private sanctuary, where we immersed ourselves in the ambiance and viewed a video.  Unfortunately, the time taken in doing these things curtailed most of our touring.

Salem has a plethora of tourist attractions from which to choose, as you might imagine.  However, we were short on time.  We missed seeing the House of the Seven Gables, although we did visit some local witchy stores and we ducked into the Salem Witchcraft Museum near closing time, where we only browsed the gift shop.  I wasn’t too concerned because back in 1999, before the new displays (dioramas) were made public, Jerrie Hildebrand (who lives in a darling little house repurposed from a seaport warehouse right near the docks) arranged with the then-director for a private, pre-opening tour for Jerrie, Orion Foxwood, and myself.

Salem Graveyard in Autumn

Salem Graveyard

The heart of our visit was the graveyard wherein are buried the twenty condemned to death for practicing “witchcraft” in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93.  The cemetery has been made into a memorial garden for those victims of the hysteria, with a plaques/bench for each victim that visitors can sit upon or make a rubbing of the inscription.  There we spent the quiet twilight time.

* * * * *

Contemporary Pagan Studies and Western Esotericism Units.

The Pagan-Esoteric Complex: Mapping Intersecting Milieus: Contemporary paganism and esotericism share a common genealogy in 19th and early-20th century occultism.  While ‘pagans’ and ‘occultists’ have undergone some degree of differentiation since the mid-20th century, there is still a considerable overlap between milieus.  Despite these well-known facts, scholarship on esotericism and paganism has tended to reproduce the diverging identity discourses that have been created over the past century.  This panel will explore historical and contemporary cases that highlight the intersection of paganism and esotericism, from the fusion of Egyptomania and Celticism in the tradition springing from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, to the role of contemporary occultural festivals as a meeting place of pagans, magicians, and occultists.

«    Vivianne Crowley -- Ancient Egypt in an Irish Castle: How an Irish Goddess Spirituality Movement Bridges the Esoteric and Exoteric, Pagan, and Christian Worlds.  The Fellowship of Isis is one of the largest Goddess-worshipping organizations to emerge in the 1970s.  Founded by the Anglo-Irish Durdin-Robertson family, it claims tens of thousands of members and has multicultural appeal, particularly in the United States, where African American interest in Ancient Egypt is high.  The fellowship is based on esoteric interpretations of the Egyptian goddess Isis, but positions itself as a universal multifaith movement that honors the Divine feminine in all her forms.  Unlike many of the new religious movements born in the 1970s, it cannot be defined as a cult in the usual sense.  The movement has no membership fees, free resources, and great latitude in spiritual practice.  This paper examines the evolution of this contemporary Goddess movement and how it has sought to bridge the esoteric, exoteric, and Pagan and Christian worlds.

Lady Olivia in her late years
As of 2012, the worldwide membership of FOI had increased to 21 thousand from five thousand in 1985.  Its teaching material, rituals, and liturgy can be downloaded free from the main FOI site.  FOI is ahistorical and universal and requires no vows of secrecy.  Membership is open to all religions races, traditions, and children.  FOI Iseums (temples) and Lyceums (learning centers) have been established throughout the world.  FOI subscribes to Hermetic maxim “As above, so below,” from The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus

In addition, in 1993 FOI sent a colorful delegation led by founder Olivia Durdin-Robinson to the centennial Parliament of World Religions in Chicago.
Lady Olivia at Parliament of World Religions
I am familiar with two FOI groups here in California.  One is the Fellowship of Isis, Los Angeles, founded primarily by the late Laura Janesdaughter.  The other FOI group with which I am most familiar and is nearest to me, is Isis Oasis.[1]

Established by the late Lady Loreon Vigné in 1978, only two years after the founding of the mother fellowship at Clonegal Castle in Ireland, Isis Oasis is a beautiful
Egyptian-themed retreat and animal sanctuary in Geyserville, California.  Each guest room in the lodge is dedicated to a different Egyptian goddess, and Loreon’s stained glass art appears in all the structures.  Isis Oasis is also an animal sanctuary begun by Loreon because she is one of very few who successfully breeds the threatened ocelot in captivity.  It now shelters peacocks, swans, and other exotic birds, alpacas, iguanas and other lizards, and several species of wildcats.

«    Caroline TullyIsis of the North: The Celtic Priests of the Lineage of Scota.  Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, the primary creative genius behind the famous British occult group, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and his wife Moina Mathers established a mystery religion of Isis in fin de siècle Paris.  Lawrence Durdin-Robinson, his wife Pamela, and his sister Olivia created the Fellowship of Isis in Ireland in the mid-1970s.  Although separated by over half a century and not directly associated with each other, both groups have several characteristics in common.  Each combined their worship of an ancient Egyptian goddess with an interest in the Celtic Revival; both claimed that their priestly lineages derived directly from the Egyptian princess Scota, foundress of Ireland and Scotland according to Irish and Scottish mythology and pseudohistory; and both groups used dramatic ritual and theatrical events as avenues for the promulgation of their Isis religions.

Egyptian culture and religion have long fascinated people of many societies.  Kemeticism, a term for contemporary revivals of Ancient Egyptian religion, as currently practiced, ranges from strict reconstructionism to creative contemporary adaptations, as well as being a source for African pride and identity.   
Isis/Scota sailing from Egypt to Ireland
The same is true of what are generally considered to be “Celtic” (from Latin Celtae, “a name for the Gauls, the ancient Celtic tribes of France” and beyond) religions.  MacGregor is among those who consider the Celtic Scota to be a more northerly manifestation of Egyptian Isis.  They trace their lineage from 4th Dynasty pharaonic Egypt of two thousand years BCE to Roman mysteries circa 90 BCE.   

«    Diana Brown“Eastern Methods and Western Bodies”: Dion Fortune’s Assessment of Yoga for a Western Audience.  Occultists of the 19th and early 20th centuries both contributed to the popularization of thought and practices identified as yoga in British and American contexts and attempted to situate their own practices in relation to yoga.  In her writings of the 1920s and ‘30s, the British occultist Dion Fortune, who famously called ‘Qabalah’ the ‘Yoga of the West,’ reveals her changing assessment of the nature of yoga, its relationship to “Western” magical practices, and its appropriateness for Western practitioners.  A member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and founder of her own magical order, the Fraternity of the Inner Light, Fortune is a significant and understudied figure in the landscape of 20th century “Western Esotericism,” whose novels and nonfiction works such as The Sea Priestess and The Mystical Qabalah remain important for practitioners of ritual magic and Paganism, both of whom at times have self-consciously thought of themselves as alternately “Western” or European indigenous traditions.

Young Dion Fortune
I suspect most American (and other) Pagans are familiar with Dion Fortune (Violet Firth) and her writings.  Her ability to deftly synthesize ideas “derives largely from her ability to bring difficult esoteric concepts into a lucid and readily accessible prose."[2]  That legacy echoes throughout much, if not most, on contemporary Paganism.  This is especially the case today because we have so much more exposure to each other’s cultures than ever before.

«    Jason WinsladeFaeries, Bards, and Magicians: Fantasy Worlds of the Pagan Music Festival.  At contemporary Pagan festivals, solo musicians and musical groups that cultivate a Pagan or occult persona are able to fully embody that aspect for audiences already living in those alternative realities within the festival scene.  The narratives, performances and live experiences offered by these artists not only are a part of the fantasy landscape of the Pagan festival, they are often the primary methods, other than the public rituals, these festivals use to frame the event’s meaning, tone and atmosphere for its participants.  This paper examines the interaction between these artists and their audiences at several current festivals in the Midwest and eastern U.S., focusing on the methods of mythmaking, storytelling and sense experience provided by live performance.  As well as the artists’ creation of magical personae.  The paper will further contextualize these experiences within an occultural history of live musical performance and performative Pagan identity formation.

I agree with Jason’s assertion that music and its performance “are often the primary methods, other than the public rituals, these festivals use to frame the event’s meaning, tone and atmosphere for its participants.”  To quote poet and scholar Steven Posch,  “The old ways weren't just handed down informally by granny at the kitchen table. The prime mode of lore transmission in oral cultures has always been through the passing down of songs and poetry.”  How fortunate we are to have the venue of festivals where this happens.  I appreciate this study of our movement, how it has arisen, how it has been nourished, how it has evolved, all shaped in large part by the sounds of its music.  However, the study’s reliance on midwestern and eastern U.S. festivals, while limited due to geography, seems to me to ignore or overlook lots of other fine Pagan musicians with whom I’m familiar who evidently don’t necessarily make it to the more easterly festivals.

My next post will report on the Native Traditions in the Americas and North American Religions Units about Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline Protest.

[1]             When the AAR Annual Meeting was last held in San Francisco, in 2011, our pre-conference Pagan field trip included Isis Oasis.
[2]             Historian Claire Fanger

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Becoming a Sanctuary Congregation: How Faith Communities Can Support Immigrants

Marin Interfaith Council sponsored a gathering of religious leaders to learn about the sanctuary movement.  A total of 62 attendees came out on August 29th for the gathering focused on sanctuary congregations.  The speakers addressed:

What does it mean to provide sanctuary?  What are the levels of sanctuary?  What is the process to become a sanctuary congregation, and what are the challenges/risks?

The Rev. Deborah Lee, Program Director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, and Rabbi Elana Rosen-Brown of Congregation Rodef Sholom, spoke in both practical and moral terms about how faith communities can utilize their resources to serve the immigrant community in this time of need.  Different examples of sanctuary congregations were provided to help attendees understand the range of ways to offer sanctuary.  Both leaders also echoed the importance of defining mentally, spiritually, and emotionally what sanctuary means for your faith community so that you can create and implement an appropriate response.  [Emphasis intentional]

Rev. Deborah Lee
Deborah first spoke to the overall problems about the impact of undocumented immigrants in practical terms.  She asserts that there has been a coordinated attack on the word “sanctuary.”

The U.S. is a destination for migrants; many immigrants come to the U.S. to escape danger.  California and the San Francisco Bay Area more so.  It behooves us to demonstrate compassion and mercy, and to consider the underlying causes of their migration.  After all, but for a small population of Native Peoples that we -- all of us whose families came here as immigrants at some point – have decimated.  All of us Euros, Africans, Asians, and blends are immigrants, regardless of how far back our ancestors.  Latinos, on the other hand, are native to the Americas.

Further, homo sapiens is a migratory species.  We arose in East Africa and have migrated to every continent and subcontinent the planet and most islands in Earth’s oceans. [Emphasis intentional]

There are more than 200 detention facilities for people seeking citizenship in this country; only two of them are for women and children.  All are overcrowded and the conditions in those facilities are worse than those in state prisons.[1] 

Additionally, recent news reports that many detained women are miscarrying, and the nutrition children and all other detainees leaves a lot to be desired.  Not to mention the lack of educational opportunities for young detainees.

On top of that, immigration costs more than $18 billion a year, more than any other federal program.  One of the largest detention facilities is West County Detention Facility in Richmond, CA, about four miles across a bridge from where I sit typing.  West County gets big bucks of our tax money from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  On the first Saturday of each month an interfaith prayer group meets from 11:00 a.m. till noon outside the gates.

Conversely, there has also be an increased in sanctuary communities locally from five to twenty-seven.

Since the current administration in Washington took over the federal government, ICE has instituted fast deportations with no judges or hearings.  Concomitantly, the number of deportees has increased.  ICE also seeks to have any immigrant who is arrested, no matter the crime or transgression, turned over to ICE by the jail or prison authorities. 

I have witnessed this policy in action where I volunteer at San Quentin.  One of our regular circle members, when he was up for parole, disappeared.  This man, an immigrant from Mexico, had a questing mind and took every advantage during his incarceration to better himself (working towards a college degree, for instance).  I viewed him as someone who was motivated and who would become a contributing member of society after his release.  Alas, when I asked about his whereabouts, assuming he’d have been assigned to some kind of halfway house as he had expected, I learned that he’d been deported.

There has been resistance to this policy by some law enforcement authorities who decline to comply, but this resistance has been inconsistent.  My county and several nearby counties and cities are sanctuary cities.  And now, thanks to Governor Jerry Brown, our state is a sanctuary state.  I sit now in a library where several signs are posted welcoming immigrants specifically, and everyone (ages, races, gender, abilities, languages, et al.).  Deborah claims that deportees are returned to slave-owners.

As mentioned above, we (the San Francisco Bay Area and the wider State of California) are a destination for migrants.  We have legal resources, whereas no counsel is offered to deportees.  Our progressive legislature assures that undocumented children can go to school.  Immigrants don’t qualify for rent subsidies, but they do have tenant rights of which most are unaware.

Deborah cautions us to expect pushback for our efforts.  We see that now that Governor Brown has designated California as a sanctuary state, the current administration has ordered ICE to amp up their raiding here.

While guides suggest speaking with an attorney who is knowledgeable about immigration law, the fact is that there is almost no legal risk.  See ACLU’s Sanctuary Congregations and Harboring FAQ.  Familiarize yourself with harboring laws, stay open, announce that fact, and report on incidents of reprieve.  ICE can enter your sanctuary to apprehend undocumented immigrants, but they are under witness of community.

She urges us to resist untruths about immigrants with those who hold them.  She offers three “R” principles:  Right thing to do; Relationship to immigrants; and Risk to share with immigrants and to take a chance.

The motto of the organization for which Deborah works, the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, is “Every human person is sacred across all borders.”  Here is what IM4HI tells us about how sanctuary looks today.

“A public, corporate commitment to walk alongside immigrants, mixed-status families, refugees, and other targeted communities to uphold the dignity, due process, and full acceptance and participation of all people in our society through protection, support, and advocacy.  Congregations can write their own statement of sanctuary to reflect what they specifically will do.”

IM4HI suggests four ways that congregations are demonstrating their commitment to sanctuary.  Some of them are things that we -- as individuals, as covens, as a covenant – can do even though we generally don’t have physical facilities.


«    Advocate at the local, state, and national levels for policies that protect the due process of immigrants and promote their full dignity and integration into our local communities.
«    Advocate for policies that help to prevent mass deportation and fear by creating clear separation between ICE  and local law enforcement and civic institutions, for example, strong sanctuary city and county policies.
«    Engage in local public actions and activities to shift public discourse towards immigrants, Muslims, and refugees, and bring attention to our responsibility

Accompaniment of Immigrant Families or Youth:

Individuals and congregations can immediately help accompany immigrants in urgent situations and need of accompaniment.  This can include newly arrived migrant families, unaccompanied minors, people facing deportation crisis, those just released from detention centers.  Trained volunteers can help to provide courtroom accompaniment, access to services, and concrete and emotional support and/or transitional housing to help those in a period of crisis.

There are 13 teams in the East Bay doing accompaniment.  They claim that this issue warrants “God’s special attention.”

Networks of Protection & Rapid Response:

«    Join a rapid response Network to respond to ICE workplace raids, home raids, or other enforcement activity.
«    Connect with targeted communities to help develop relationships and networks of protection.

Housing Hospitality:

«    There are various kinds of needs for housing hospitality:  (1) short-term respite housing for someone released from detention; (2) housing for newly arrived immigrant family seeking asylum; (3) protective housing for someone with a final order of deportation; and (4) hosts needed in order for the government to release individuals from immigration detention,
«    Depending on the case, housing hospitality could be in a private home of a member, or on congregational property.

I know that some Pagan nonprofits shy away from civic involvement out of concern for their nonprofit status.  I can state with certainty that religious organizations with nonprofit status can indeed offer opinions, suggestions, recommendations, and urging to their congregations about secular issues such as immigration without jeopardizing their nonprofit status.

Many years ago when the Reclaiming Collective was young, we -- I was active in the collective in those years and I was instrumental in acquiring these classifications -- applied for and received incorporation as a nonprofit religious organization from the Secretary of State of California as well as 501(c)3 tax status from the Internal Revenue Service.  One of the things we wanted to accomplish was to provide sponsorship of an immigrant couple (one from Senegal and the other from England) so that they could remain in this country and acquire permanent residence status.  This occurred with no effect on Reclaiming’s legal status.

Some years ago when ICE was regularly doing predawn raids in the Canal District, a predominantly Latino neighborhood of our city, our local Marin Interfaith Council’s Justice Advocacy Team organized predawn vigils, both to demonstrate our concern and solidarity and to assist victims of raids and their families.  Immigrants do have tenants rights, among other rights, of which they may be either unaware or reluctant to use for fear of deportation.

A couple of months ago, an immigrant construction worker who had entered nearby Travis Air Force Base to work on a job was held for deportation by ICE.  This man had been a contributing member of our community for more than 17 years, had married and had children who were American citizens.  He and his family were known to be law-abiding members of our city, but for the father’s immigration status.  A call went out from MIC to its members, asking them to write letters of support to representatives, government entities, and the press.  MIC is also a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

* * * * *

Rabbi Elana Rosen-Brown
Rabbi Elana Rosen-Brown told of the ways in which the members of her Congregation Rodef Sholom committed to create a sanctuary for immigrants.  She spoke of Rodof Shalom’s process of becoming a community network.  She cited T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which has published Mikdash: A Quickstart Guide for Sanctuary Synagogues, a step-by-step, easy-to-access pdf.  In addition to providing us with a copy of this document, she gave us copies of the “Resolution of the Board of Directors of Congregation Rodof Shalom Affirming Congregational Solidarity with Undocumented Immigrants.”  To demonstrate its commitment to this resolution of its Board, they created a Source Sheet, a useful document she also shared with us.

The first thing to do is to change hearts and minds. Becoming a sanctuary community begins with networking.  Concurrently, reach out to local immigrants rights group to understand local needs and partners.  It’s good as well to have immigrant folk speak to the congregation so that the members can better understand and appreciate their urgent needs.

Elana recommends Sanctuary Not Deportation (SND), which has a list of local coalitions.  Sanctuary groups are already well established in such places as Denver, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Austin, Chicago, Southern Arizona, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Phoenix, Washington, South Florida, Colorado Springs, and New Mexico.  Our neighboring state of Oregon’s Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice is another resource for learning to become a sanctuary community.

SND offers instructions on becoming a sanctuary community, including strategy and tactics.  Different religious traditions have published denominational statements as well as liturgical materials; however, all are Christian except for one issued by Reformed Judaism.  SND appears to be a useful site, but it could certainly benefit from having a more diverse coalition.

Now we Pagans don’t usually have buildings to use and to maintain; even so, there are plenty of ways we can help.  Several ways are suggested above.

After the presentations of our two guests, I got an idea of how we – me, anyway – might help.  I propose providing immigrants with prepaid cell phones.  With cell phones, immigrants can receive announcements pertinent to their situations. They can access information and resources in their own languages.  And if circumstances result in their relocating, they can remain connected with friends, allies, and supportive groups.  My idea was to contact CREDO Mobile or other cell phone services to enlist their cooperation by providing the phones, perhaps new but discontinued models that are harder to sell.  CREDO is a social change network of 5 million activists organizing and mobilizing for progressive change; each month CREDO donates all profits to various nonprofits, voted on by subscribers.  I haven’t followed through on this yet.  What do you think?

[1]           She actually cited San Quentin, probably because it is local; however, I volunteer with the Wiccan circle there and so far I haven’t been exposed to deplorable conditions.  Bleak and institutional, yes.  Of course, I only see communal areas, not cellblocks.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Reflections on Melek Taus

Last week I attended an Interfaith Gala Dessert Reception to help the Yezidis Facing Genocide, featuring a delegation of Yezidis in exile here in North America and hoping to regain their homelands.

Held at Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City, California, the room featured peacock feathers on each table and walls adorned with Yezidi (Yazidi) flags.  The screen upon one wall featured a large image of Melek Taus, the Peacock God of the Yezidis.

I was especially intrigued to learn how Melek Taus is conceived in Yezedi (Yazidi) religion because this figure also appears as a deity in the Anderson Faery/Feri tradition of the Craft. 

Here is an account of a contemporary reference to Melek Taus

The contingent, named Malik al-Tawus or ‘King Peacock’ after the mythical figure worshipped by the ancient religious minority, clashed with IS [ISIL] in the area west of the rebel-held city of Mosul.

Malik al-Tawus, the self-defence group, was established in 2007 to protect the Yazidi community in Iraq against attacks by Islamists.

The Yazidi religion is a syncretic combination of Zoroastrianism with Sufi Islam, dating back to ancient Mesopotamia. They believe that God and seven angels protect the world and one of these angels, named Malak Tawus and believed to be embodied by a peacock on Earth, was thrown out of paradise for refusing to bow to Adam.

I don’t know if the Yezidis who were honored at this recent reception would agree with the description of their religion as being syncretic, although most if not all religions are.  They struck me as being of a conservative bent.  This particular group represented a diaspora of Yezidis living in Canada. 

RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty reports on another Yezidi community in Armenia where Melek Taus is prominently revered and where the Yezidis recently constructed a new temple.  Perhaps their goal is not to reclaim their homeland in Northern Iraq that other diasporic communities seek.

In any case, Melek Taus, the headstrong Peacock Angel, is the central figure in the Yazidi faith.  Because he refused to bend to the will of God [the one called Allah, one would assume], conservative Muslims view the Yezidis as “devil worshippers.”  The Koran tells a similar story about Shaytan, the Devil, having been cast down into hell for defying God.

However, although Melek Taus is the most important deity to the Yezidis, they maintain that he belongs to the entire world.  About the Peacock Angel Yezidi Truth asserts that:

The Yezidis believe that they possess the oldest religion on Earth, the primeval faith that features Tawsi Melek, and that all other traditions are related to them through the Peacock Angel [although not always in the form of a peacock]. They contend that Tawsi Melek is the true creator and ruler of the universe, and therefore a part of all religious traditions.  Once he arrived on Earth he became its monarch and has since governed the world from an etheric dimension.

Melek Taus later changed his appearance and name and now has morphed and manifested in different religions around the globe.

Further, for Yazidis, Melek Taus “is above the concepts of good and evil -- comparable to fire, which can cook and warm but also burn and destroy.”  Therefore, is makes perfect sense to me that he would manifest in a religion that holds the concept of “the black heart of innocence.”  To quote the late Grand Master Victor Anderson:  “How beautiful is the black lascivious purity in the hearts of children and small animals.  This is the black heart of innocence and the root of all true rightness.”

My initial encounters with Melek Taus were in the context of Anderson Faery/Feri, although I have had very little exposure to him even within Faery.  When I first read about Melek Taus exclusive of the context of Faery, I thought his appearance there might have been the dreaded cultural appropriation.  After all, culturally speaking, Northern Iraq is a far cry from Northern California.  Now I’ve learned that he is claimed to be “a part of all religious traditions.”

My personal favorite, the image on the altar in my bedroom, is artist Paul Rucker’s interpretation. Judging by the plethora of images of Melek Taus on the Internet, it seems he’s become widely known, with many jpgs of Paul’s art and almost no attribution.

There’s a wealth of information and a wealth images of Melek Taus on the Internet for those who wish to pursue him intellectually.  Best, however, to encounter him by performing devotional acts; then see what happens.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

AAR 2016

Gold Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol  1962

Last November, with help from the Covenant of the Goddess, I again attended the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Antonio.  (This year the meeting will be in Boston.)

If you’ve read any of my other posts about these annual meetings, you know that in addition to the Pagan Studies Section, I attend other sessions on other topics when they don’t conflict with Pagan Studies sessions.  This year was no different.

Kerry Noonan and I shared a room, where I listened to her rehearse her paper, sans Power Point.  It interested me, as did some of the other papers in that session.  One can always learn from other religions.  Not necessarily theology, faith, or belief; rather organizations and methods, successes and mistakes, things we may wish to emulate (organization-wise) and those we should avoid.  We also learn what I call “sacred technology,” by which I mean such things as visualization, meditation, chanting, breathwork, dancing, liturgical skills.

So the first session I attended was that of the Roman Catholic Studies Group, entitled

Ex-Catholics: Thresholds of Catholic Identity and Defiance.  According to a Pew survey, Catholicism … has been losing adherents, mostly to the secular, … but also due to relevance.

«    Nicholas Rademacher – “Rethinking Resistance: Varieties of Dissent and Patterns of Solidarity among U.S. Catholics.”  Many observers gloss over differences among dissenting Catholics of the mid to late twentieth century, collapsing a diverse movement into a seeming homogeneous group.  Even the radicals themselves perpetuated an impression of homogeneity in order to present a united front to the public eye.  While many dissenters at mid-century promoted similar ideas about racial and economic justice, pacifism, and a more egalitarian ecclesiology, they traveled different paths and even corrected one another from time to time.  Yet they rarely if ever publicly reproached one another.  A closer look at the internal conversation of the period by way of diary accounts, correspondence, and the public record reveals important distinctions and even disagreements among and between those who dissented within and against the Roman Catholic Church on social justice themes.

We’ve long included many, many ‘recovering Catholics’ in our Pagan communities, along with Jewitches, Buddheo-Pagans, Quagans, and Atheo-Pagans.  Some Pagans design rituals that have been influenced by Catholic ritual, not to mention the liberal use of frankincense and myrrh in our workings.[1]  Some Pagan organizations go so far as to mimic Roman Catholic hierarchy, assuming such titles as Reverend and Right Reverend, wearing [green or purple] Roman collars, and employing fractured Elizabethan English.  Not my personal cup of tea, but if using these methods aids practitioners to achieve a more spiritually receptive state and feel more compassionate toward and bonded with their co-practitioners, more power to them.

Dr. Rademacher spoke of “defecting in place,” citing Catholics working for social justice causes.  Among them, Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan and his brother Phillip, the latter’s wife and former nun, Elizabeth McAlister, Thomas Merton, and Mary Elizabeth Walsh.  These people interpreted church teachings as a living gospel calling for activism in pursuit of a better world.  From the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt forward, they sought to foster solidarity within the social justice movement.  They saw priests moving into middle class privilege, while they instead worked in the Bowery, established settlement houses, participated in hunger and peace marches, and in general chose to live with and among marginalized people instead of returning to middle class comfort.

«    Kori Pacyniak – “Ex-Catholics: Exile or Exodus in the Borderlands of the Church.”  As numbers of “former” or” ex” Catholics increase, various questions remain.  Why do some leave while others remain and work for change within.

Ms. Pacyniak, whose studies focus on queer theology, trans theology, and trauma theology, spoke of liminal overlapping space.  Many LGBTQIA Catholics leave their place of origin to find a more accepting space and a better life.  They seek these demilitarized places where they are both inside and outside, “both me and not me.”  These borderlands as places of “becoming.”  She also stressed the distinction between the exodus where one has agency, as opposed to excommunication which is not of one’s doing.

Often these dissenting Catholics find a welcoming home and a more relevant and satisfying religious practice within Pagan communities.

«    Meredith Massar Munson – “All That Glitters Is Not Gold: Andy Warhol’s Byzantine Icon, Gold Marilyn Monroe.”  When did celebrity become iconic?  Born of devout Byzantine-Ruthenian immigrants in Pittsburgh, Andy Warhol spent his childhood in the rich visual culture of the Byzantine Catholic tradition.  His 1962 painting, Gold Marilyn Monroe, has been casually associated with Byzantine icons since its creation.  However, scholars have not gone beyond the canvas’s gilded visage to explore the extremely provocative connotations that such a connection might actually hold.  An investigation of the artist’s personal Byzantine-Catholic history posits this painting as directly indebted to the long-standing icon tradition, and furthermore, as intrinsically connected to the acheiropoieta, [made without hands] the image not by human hands.  Warhol’s iconic painting opens the door for a cultural critique that compares and contrasts fame and exploitation.  This paper will endeavor to place Gold Marilyn within the much larger dialogue concerning the role of the icon, bridging the gap between the secular and the spiritual.

I had never heard of Byzantine-Ruthenian Catholicism before.  I was aware that Andy Warhol was Catholic, but I knew neither its particular flavor nor its prominence/importance in his life.  He attended Mass daily.

My interest in this talk was the examination of pop icons in light of the fact that many Pagans are idolaters or use iconic images as objects of reverence and/or for focused meditation.  Not all, of course, but many.  It is not uncommon to see on an altar a Wonder Woman action figure or a little Batman doll or some other object marketed as a toy.

We have our own versions of the Catholic Marian cults, such as the Ord Brighideach International, to which I belong, and the Covenant of Hekate.  Moreover, there are numerous orders, sisterhoods, and fellowships dedicated to the worship of specific deities.  Further, I know there are people, Pagans and cowans alike, who maintain special areas of their homes dedicated to Marilyn Monroe herself.  The painting called Gold Marilyn Monroe, created by the “pope of pop,” exemplifies this appreciation of graven images.

«    Kerry Noonan – “’I’m Going to Try Reiki Next, and I’m Not Going to Confession!’ Negotiating Vernacular Catholicism.”  In a guided meditation in a yoga studio, a conservative Catholic woman listens to the messages channeled by a psychic teacher -– messages from deceased loved ones, archangels, the Virgin Mary.  She’s not a “fallen-away” Catholic, nor a New Ager; Catholicism is part of her identity, and she works to integrate these new practices into an identity that eschews them.  Employing Leonard Primiano’s concept of  “vernacular religion,” I aim to better understand her and others like her who, while seeking direct and embodied experiences of the Divine, incorporate new practices and place them in familiar Catholic contexts.  In light of Catherine Albanese’s assertion that Americans have practiced “combinative” religion for centuries, and Robert Orsi’s contention that religious traditions are “zones of improvisation and conflict,” I explore the possibility that we can see this woman not as an orthodox outlier, but as emblematic of important trends in the American religious landscape.

This process of syncretism is a fairly common phenomenon among Pagan religions, Witchcraft in particular.  We often learn meditative techniques from Asian religions rhat may enhance our own.  Tibetan Buddhism employs the use of yantras as foci for visualization.  We also sing Hindu chants, purported Native American chants of various kinds, and chants from Voudoun.  We borrow rhythms.  We dance English, French, and Basque folk dances.

Contemporary Pagan Studies Group(1)

Modernity and Postmodernity:  Pagans Reimagining the Future.  Modern Pagan movements still struggle with identity and history, especially when former “historical” and ideological foundations are challenged by new interpretations or others’ voice.  Participants will present summaries of their papers and discuss with each other and the audience issues of history, identity and ethnicity across boundaries, and the pressures of institutionalization.  

Sabina Magliocco presided and Amy Hale responded to the following speakers;

«    Barbara Jane Davy — "Reconstruction Alternatives: Wicked Dilemmas for Contemporary Pagan Responses to Modernity." (description too long to type)

«    Stephen Quilley — "Reconstruction Alternatives: Wicked Dilemmas for Contemporary Pagan Responses to Modernity." (description too long to type)

«    Thomas Berendt —  "Postmodern Paganisms: Embracing Polytheitic Plurality, Diversity, and Hybridity.” (description too long to type)

«    Christopher W. Chase — "Differential Modernities: Rethinking Vodou in Contemporary Paganism."  “…contends that Pagan traditions respond to modernity according to sociohistorically contingent circumstances. As an example, Vodou has developed a Christian ecclesia model in Haiti in response to Pentecostalism, while tracking along a decentralized initiatory path in the U.S., similar to other Pagan traditions.

As you can tell from these descriptions, we Pagans are protean in our tendency to evolve and change.

I apologize for the skimpiness of commentary on the Pagan Studies sessions.  In the two years since I suffered a stroke, I have not fully regained my ability to handwrite, so my notes are minimal and often indecipherable.  Fortunately, Christine Hoff Kraemer shares a thorough report of her experience of this event on The Wild Hunt. 

Contemporary Pagan Studies Group(2)

Dilemmas of Identity and Formation in Contemporary Paganism:  Tropes of anti-modernism and primitivism inform the development of contemporary Pagan movements, yet these groups are sometimes described as postmodern as well.”  Papers and discussion of “whether the central tenets of postmodernism – plurality, diversity, and hybridity – chiefly influence such movements today or whether protests against modernity and reconstructions of fictive pre-modern societies and world views drive them equally.

Jone Salomonsen presided and Shawn Arthur responded to the following speakers:

«    Gwendolyn Reece – “The Scalability Crisis: Contemporary Paganism and Institutionalization.”  “…argues that one of the primary driving forces behind the trend towards institutionalization in Contemporary Paganisjm … (description too long to type)

This paper specifically speaks of the dilemmas we, as a fast-growing constellation of Nature-based and/or heritage-based, and related non-Abrahamic religious groups, confront when trying to create institutions that address our professional needs from a less conventional and, given our great diversity, from a somewhat Pagan perspective.  This has been the work of Cherry Hill Seminary, among other worthy efforts.

«    Patricia E’Iolana  -- “An Imagined and Idealised [sic] Past as a Source for Revisionist Rhetoric: The Dual Lives of the 1921 Murray Thesis.” (description too long to type)

«    Lee Gilmore – “Pagan and Indigenous Communities at the Parliament (Part 2): The Myth of the Unbroken Line in Constructions of Authenticity.” (description too long to type)

«    Leigh Ann Hildebrand – “Jews (and Jewitches) Touching Trees: Hybrid Jewish/Pagan Identity, Ritual Practice, and Belief.” (description too long to type)

The phenomenon of Jewitches has long been a facet of the Craft.  About twenty years ago Jewitches in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) published a newsletter call Di Shmatteh (the rag).  Since then, various blends or dual perspectives have arisen:  Buddheo-Pagan, Quagan, Atheo-Pagan, and even Christo-Pagan.  As a person reared in Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, I don’t get this last one, but then again, it’s not mine to get.

The work of scholars and supporters at Cherry Hill Seminary is one manifestation of the expression of these issues of legitimacy, identity, and sustainability.  In fact, one of the older and still extant Pagan organizations, the Covenant of the Goddess, in its annual Leadership Institute, has recently done in a daylong focus on examining the current state of the Craft and Paganism, and locating CoG’s place in that larger community and in the world.

Native Traditions in the Americas Group

Indigenous Religious Hybridity and the Transformation of Traditions:  This session addresses different forms of religious hybridity.  Zitkala-Sa, or Gertrude Simmons Bonin, was an important Dakota leader who drew from her own cultural traditions as well as her education in boarding schools to publish at the national level and serve as an agent of the government.  Patron Saint Feast Days incorporate from and negotiate between indigenous and Christian practices.  Research on the Ohlone Shell Walk illustrates the revitalization of traditions while highlighting the relationship between religious and political activity.

«    Abel Gomez -- Shellmound Peace Walk: Prayer, Pilgrimage, and Activism in Ohlone Territory” Ohlone communities of the San Francisco and Monterey Bay Areas are experiencing a cultural renewal, despite their non-recognized status.  Central to this revival is the protection of burial sites, most of which have been destroyed because of urban development.  This paper focuses on Ohlone activist Corrina Gould’s efforts to honor the burial place of her ancestors through Shellmound Peace Walks.  Beginning in 2005, Gould has organized three-week long pilgrimages to the shellmounds (burial sites) of her ancestors.  At each stop, participants heard stories of the site and offered prayers and tobacco.  Drawing on fieldwork, historical writings, and oral histories, I argue that the Shellmound Peace Walks demonstrate the interconnectivity of religion and political activism in Native communities.  For Ohlone solidarity with non-Native people.

I was initially drawn to this section because I saw that Abel Gomez was one of the presenters.  He is a young man from the S.F Bay Area I’ve met through local Reclaiming. 

Another draw was the fact that the topic is about a region I call home.  Much of the southern Baylands and the land on the other side of SF Bay from where I write is home to Ohlone people.  My neighboring county to the north is Coast Miwok country.[2]  There are 425 shellmounds in the salt marshes and mudflats around San Francisco Bay and beyond (San Pablo Bay, Suisun Bay, Carquinez Strait).  

Over the time since Europeans settled this area, the largest, once a burial ground rising 60 feet high and dating back to 800 BCE, has been desecrated by being used for an amusement park and later as a dumping ground for toxic chemicals.   Since 1999 a shopping center occupies most of that shellmound, with a memorial park nearby, now designated Emeryville Shellmound, California Historical Landmark #335.

From time to time I have received email posts soliciting people to attend these peace walks.  I appreciated hearing this more detailed information about these activities.  Abel’s contention of the interconnectivity of Native religions and political activism matches my own convictions.

I have attended public Witchen sabbat celebrations at the Emeryville Shellmounds.  From that spot one can see beautiful sunsets behind some of the land surrounding the Bay.  I like to think that, rather than using the site as a dumping ground, by performing our sabbats on what is left of this formerly 60-foot high mound, we in some small way honor the ancestors of our Ohlone neighbors.

«     Boundaries in the Borderlands: Pueblo Indian Patron Saint Feast Days and the Negotiation of Catholicism 

Once again my post-stroke ability to take notes results in my inability to interpret my compromised handwriting.

Zitkala-Sa, Joseph T. Keiley

Zitkala-Sa: A Warrior of Survivance [sic] between Traditionalism and Progressivism

A mixed-ethnicity[3] woman who identified with her mother’s Yankton Sioux heritage, Zitkala-Sa, “Red Bird,” whose Euro-name is Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, first entered my consciousness a few years ago when I came upon the following quote:

“A wee child toddling in a wonder world, I prefer to their dogma my excursions into the natural gardens where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers. If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan.”

Zitkala-Sa was an amazing person.  She straddled two cultures, seeking the knowledge and wisdom of both, and she took those understandings into the world beyond the reservation.  She even wrote a Native-themed opera, “The Sun Dance Opera,” that was first performed on stage in 1913.  Her finding values in both cultures in which she found herself immersed seems relevant to what many contemporary Pagans have been doing by learning about our various heritages, and blends of heritages.   We syncretize what resonates for us into spiritual practices that give expression of who we are and enrich the meaning in our rituals.

I’m registered for the AAR Annual Meeting in Boston and hopeful that I’ll have enough money to get there.

[1]   The inmates in our circle at San Quentin State Prison, unlike in many other prisons, are allowed flame and incense, at least when I’m there, and they all love incense.  So we use it liberally and they emerge from circle with the scents permeating their hair and clothing and reminding them of where they’ve just been.
[3]   I feel uncomfortable assigning the word race to people of any heritage or complexion because humans comprise one race or species.