Saturday, December 31, 2005

My so-called break

Tabitha tells it like it is.

Add a book ms. to read, a proposal to write, a journal issue to assemble, an unpaid article to write for academic glory...


Friday, December 30, 2005

1939 and All That

Jason Pitzl-Waters draws attention to a 2001 interview with Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone recently re-published in the online zine The Wiccan-Pagan Times.

Janet Farrar, who came to the Craft in the late 1960s, seems to dancing around a more skeptical position as regarding Gerald Gardner's finding a coven of Witches concealed within the Rosicrucian Theatre group in 1930s England. She thinks that the concealed group was mostly Theosophists and Co-Masons, and that he tried to label them as witches.

Let's try a radically simpler idea.

The whole "1939 initiation in Dorothy Clutterbuck's country house" story is fiction. Likewise, the Lammas 1940 ritual against the threatened German invasion, turned into a 1983 novel by Katherine Kurtz, is itself most likely fiction.

The man driving the coffin nails into the 1939 initiation myth is, ironically, a man who wants desperately to believe in it: the British writer Philip Heselton. In his second book, Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration, which followed Wiccan Roots: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival, he backs away from the pure Margaret Murray-style "Old Religion" mythology and suggests that perhaps Wicca was developed in the 1920s, just before Gardner came along. (Both books are published by Capall Bann.)

Unlikely. Gardner's own actions and writings offer a different explanation.

In the 1960 biography, Gerald Gardner, Witch, he tells his biographer (Idries Shah, owner of the publishing firm), that when he found the Witches, he found what he had been seeking all along. But consider his own behavior, as detailed by Heselton.

In 1946, he joins the Ancient Druid Order, which had a magical component but was not truly Pagan, since many members were more like esoteric Christians with Celtic interests. The same year, he is ordained a priest in the esoteric Ancient British Church, one of several tiny splinter groups of the Old Catholic Church. Finally, as is well known, in 1947 he contacts Aleister Crowley, shorter before Crowley's death, and is given a charter to continue Crowley's magical order, the OTO.

Is this a man who has found what he truly sought in 1939, or is this a seeker who is still sampling different esoteric spiritualities in order to find the one that is right for him?

Likewise, in the 1940s he writes a novel of witchcraft, High Magic's Aid, whose practices bear little relationship to Wicca but, as the title suggests, look a lot more like ceremonial magic. In contrast, his 1954 book Witchcraft Today is whole-heartedly in the Margaret Murray camp; she wrote the introduction. It describes a Pagan religion surviving from the misty past, and that is the position that he held for the rest of his life.

The turning point is 1951, when his associate Cecil Williamson opens a witchcraft and folklore museum on the Isle of Man. Gardner helps to finance it and later takes over its operation. The partners have a problem: what to put in the display cases? They bring talismans, magical daggers, and so forth from their personal collections, and so on, but it's not enough. Gardner replicates some ceremonial items--swords, robes, grimoires, etc.,--as he admits in his letters to Williamson, and promises to get more on loan from the witches.

I think that the physical reality of the museum and its needs (and perhaps the simultaneous repeal of the Witchcraft Act of 1735, which meant it was no longer illegal to call yourself a "witch"), were the final push that led to the creation of the self-consciously Pagan new religion of Wicca by Gardner, his lover Edith Woodford-Grimes, and whoever else was involved.

Then, in the 1950s, Gardner truly acted like a man who had found what he was seeking. No more OTO, no more Druids, no more Ancient British Church. He taught Wicca, wrote about Wicca, gave press interviews about Wicca, and continued that way until his death in 1964.

In his 1992 book Crafting the Art of Magic, Aidan Kelly points out that other than Gardner's own stories,, we have no independent sources for the 1939 initiation, the 1940 rite against Hitler, etc. Kelly also rightly says that religious innovators often present themselves as reformers of an earlier tradition rather than creators of a new one.

Unfortunately, Kelly also tried to paint Gardner as a sexual masochist with very flimsy evidence and innuendo. He made much of the practice of flogging boys in English boarding schools--but Gardner was home-schooled and never attended any boarding school. The result was the "Gardner was an old pervert" meme, which is still with us.

Were I a Pagan theologian, I would say that the Gods chose the timing: 1951 not 1939. Maybe so. And all religions are "new religious movements" at some point in time.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

On the Road

I'm traveling in southern New Mexico. Blogging will resume shortly.


Thursday, December 22, 2005

Candles for Pagans

I like candles. So did my mother, a life-long Episcopalian. To her, I suppose they suggested gracious living. She died ten years ago, and M. and I still have not used up all the candles that she left behind.

Ever since our handfasting, we have been pretty well "out" to our families. So when Yuletide comes around, they must think Paganism > magic > interior decoration > candles.

We have American candles, Italian candles, Israeli candles, candles shaped like animals. We have enough candlesticks and multiple-votive-candle holders for a small Catholic church. And they are all tasteful and fine, except that lately M. has been concerned about health effects, so we don't burn candles in the quantities of old, except during our annual four-day power failure.

On the other hand, this year M.'s sister sent a box of organic French chocolate truffles. Could we encourage this trend?

Stifle yourself

Community College Dean, an academic blogger, posts on coping with unhappy students and on the desirability of "stifling yourself," mainly so as not to tell the academic slackers what you really think of them.

I saw a different, simpler version on a hatchback in Salida, Colo., yesterday, written with narrow white tape on the rear window: </YOURSELF>

Web-nerd humor.
Spotlight on Pagan Studies

The field of Pagan Studies gets noticed in Publishers Weekly, thanks to freelance religion writer Kimberly Winston. Since my upcoming book is mentioned, I couldn't be happier.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Wars over Christmas

Blame the Emperor Constantine, as this blogger rightly points out.

That's the same Constantine who would make Tony Soprano look like the Dalai Lama.

A post on a Pagan mailing list had this gem:

But I just got done watching (thankfully, I wasn't at the center but hubby was) a huge donnybrook about Cub Scouts' December pack meeting being a "holiday party" not the "Christmas party" that some parents were insistent on. The event was quiet and happy but the organizers had law enforcement on standby because it has become that heated.

Maybe religious wars are a cultural norm, and we have unknowingly been living until recently in a rare era of relative peace, which we mistook for normality.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Countdown to solstice

At times like now, I rely on this site to know just when the magical moment will occur. It works for the Southern Hemisphere too.

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Saturday, December 17, 2005

'Narnia made me Pagan'

Starhawk's essay on BeliefNet discusses how C.S. Lewis's Narnia books contributed to her becoming Pagan.

But Lewis is a mystic, and Aslan is a deity who bursts out of the confines of any dogma. His sensibility is as Pagan as his theology is Christian. The book is steeped in the imagery of nature, and while the Christian mythology is covert, the Greek mythology is front and center, with fauns, naiads, dryads, and centaurs playing starring roles. God is a great lion you can romp with--what a powerful image of deity-in-nature!

I suspect that she is right about their paganizing influence, despite the claims of some culture-warriors.

I did not read the Narnia books until I was a college freshman. My girlfriend was a big Narnia fan; she even had an India-print bedspread with a lion motif hanging above her bed. Obviously I had to read the books. By that time, of course, I was sophisticated enough to see how Aslan could be a "Christ figure," but I could also see that one could read the books and miss that motif entirely.

UPDATE: More on Narnia from the wackier wing of Protestant Christianity.

When I saw the release date of this new movie, I was not surprised. December 9th is the 13th day before the witches’ quarter-sabat of Yule.

Got that?


Thursday, December 15, 2005

A reason for poetry

Artistic and creative types do have more sex, a British survey suggests. (Is it really speaking only of men, as all the examples suggest?)

Promiscuous Picasso, Lord Byron the philanderer, Dylan Thomas the boozy womaniser: these were not simply bonking Bohemians, it seems, but artists doing what their genes told them to do. According to the researchers the greater the artistic endeavour, the larger the sexual appetites. (There are some obvious exceptions to this rule: Julio Iglesias once boasted that he had had sex with 3,000 women, but has never yet sung a decent song.)

Well, of course. This explains why high-school literary magazines survive. It's not the quality of the writing, but the fact that one is a writer. Ditto garage bands and more.

In the political realm, meanwhile, say the authors of Nation of Rebels, art and coolness become a substitute for, y'know, actually knowing something about economics and politics.

Heath and Potter criticize such theorists as Michel Foucault and Theodore Roszak. Under their influence, "Traditional leftist concerns, such as poverty, living standards and access to medical care, came to be seen as 'superficial,'…[compared to] 'the psychic liberation of the oppressed.'" The boring old Left never stood a chance against the new one: "Doing guerilla theater, playing in a band, making avant-garde art, taking drugs and having lots of wild sex certainly beat union organization as a way to spend the weekend."

Both links via Arts and Letters Daily. Tags: , , ,

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Semester's end

I wander around to departmental offices and snack on pizzelles and potica. In a previous job, I was told that no wedding in Pueblo, Florence, or Cañon City was valid if pizzelles were not served at the reception. (This rule does not apply in Penrose, Colo., where the bride and groom exchange horses, motorcycles, or broken-down school buses.)

Seeing pizzelles, you know it's a holiday. As for potica, a little goes a long way, as with most of that solid bojohn cuisine.

Writing students drift in and drop off their portfolios. During the one full-blown 2.5-hour final exam that I must give, I look out the west window over the lawn. On the slope in front of the bandstand, a man in a parka walks back and forth, sweeping the grass with his metal detector. I wish I could go out there and see how he is doing with his treasure hunt.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

I still call them "Christmas cards"

When I was new to the Pagan movement, I was militant about saying "Yule" instead of "Christmas." I managed to train one of my sisters to employ the same usage when speaking to me; the other one never really noticed.

This year, we are enjoying this hyped-up controversy over the "war against Christmas," in which elements of the nation's religious majority strike the pose of persecuted victims.

One voice of reason is Ed Quillen, the only Denver Post op-ed columnist who lives outside the Denver metroplex. In today's column he writes:

The impulse not to say "Merry Christmas" comes from good intentions. The theory is that non-Christians might feel offended. I've yet to encounter a Jew, Buddhist, Wiccan, Unitarian, atheist, agnostic or humanist who does feel offended by the sentiment, but then again, I live in the boondocks, and people might be more easily offended in civilized metropolitan areas where they have diversity trainers. [Link may expire.]

Considering that I might be one of the Wiccans that he has in mind, I couldn't agree more. I'm not offended. If I drop a few dollars in the Salvation Army kettle, I expect the bellringer to say "Merry Christmas." After all, the Salvation Army is in fact a Christian denomination.

It is a little funny that President and Mrs. Bush are criticized for sending out cards saying "Happy Holidays." I'm not on their mailing list, but I did receive my own mass-produced card today from Senator Ken Salazar, and guess what it said: "Happy Holidays." But then he's a Democraft, so he must be an evil secularist, some on the far right would say. The president, on the other hand, is supposed to wave the banner of Christ, if you listen to some of his more extreme supporters.

Although I myself only send cards that don't say "Christmas" but rather "Season's Greetings" or the like, I still find myself calling down to where M. is sitting at her desk, "Did you use up all the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Christmas cards?"

Maybe that's syncretism or bricolage or something. May the Great Elk bring you Yule stockings of Christmas joy. That's how we do it in the boondocks.

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Monday, December 12, 2005

In dreaming, truth?

A couple of nights ago I dreamt I was talking with the dean of the university's library, with whom I have generally had a good collegial relationship.

Teaching, I told her in the dream, was like getting married and divorced twice in every year.

On waking, I thought that that simile was a little overstated. Over the top. Overblown.

Granted, I can think of at least two students whom I hope that I will never see again. Both have the quality of being psychic-energy sinks. In a big lecture class of a hundred bodies you would not know it, but in a small seminar or workshop of eight or ten, their very presence seems to lower the temperature in the room.

Then too I wonder if I could somehow have done more with them. But in the case of one of the students, another professor in her major department told me that he felt he could not teach her anything, so I wasn't the only one. In the other's case, the chair of his major department said frankly, "We're just babysitting him."

Yet was I too unfocused? Stretched too thin? Thinking too much about my own writing, about The Pomegranate, about some special project for my dean? (Standard teacher self-criticism, all of it.)

Now the wheel has turned, and it is time to think about spring-semester classes. Last spring I lost two months to the flu, feeling only half-alive through February and March. All I want is a semester that goes well without nasty surprises.

None of this explains why my Dreaming Self chose the dean of the library as the other party.

Stop not making sense

Like Ray Lashley of Bristol (comments section), I was surprised at how many of these I actually could understand. Perhaps that ability comes from a decade of reading student writing.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Jewish Paganism

A writer for the Forward samples Jewish paganism and ponders its ethical emplications.

But, I asked the rabbi, how do we know that we're not in danger of precisely that which so many sacred texts warn about? The answer, he said, is ethics. "You know it's holy eros because it leads to ethics. People help each other, work with each other. That's the litmus test." And the opposite? "A KKK rally," Gafni answered. "Lots of bonfires, lots of energy. No ethics. That's the distinction between holy paganism and idolatry."

What we might be looking at here though is small-p paganism, a collection of embodied and place-centered religious practices, more than self-consciously polytheistic Paganism.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Wiccan chaplains

The Sacred Well Congregation, a Texas Wiccan group with a lot of military connections, has just reached a bureaucratic milestone:

As of 3 December 2005, The Sacred Well Congregation has been entered to full membership as an endorsing body in the Committee on Ministry in Specialized Settings (COMISS). COMISS is the primary organization with responsibility for establishing which civil organizations may present an Ecclesiastical Endorsing Agent (EEA) to the military chaplaincy. Through its subsidiaries, the National Council on Ministry to the Armed Forces(NCMAF) and the Endorsers Conference for Veterans Affairs Chaplains(ECVAC), COMISS is the endorsing path for military chaplains, and VA chaplains, respectively.

As I understand the announcement, this is the first step towards putting forward qualified Wiccan military chaplains. I expect more information to be forthcoming later.

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Cold weather

I came home Tuesday evening and found that M. was upset because one of the dogs was missing. Shelby is a collie-mix who was one step above feral when we got her, and although she has learned to appreciate having her own bed, regular meals, and belly rubs, she will still wander onto the national forest looking for carcasses to scavenge.

M. had looked for her already, but I volunteered to go out too. The temperature was about 10 degrees F. (-12 C.) and dropping. Light, powdery snow was falling. I changed clothes, grabbed a walking stick, and headed up the Forest Service road into the Mason Gulch Burn, stopping occasionally to call and whistle.

From last summer's forest fire to this: the snowy ground, the black skeletons of pine trees like nervous pencil marks on white paper, the lowering clouds, and the failing light. All was silent except for the whisper of snow on the fabric of my coat.

If any scene exemplified the phrase "dead of winter," that was it.

When it started getting too dark to see, I went home, dogless. As it turned out, she was hanging around a neighbor's house. In her doggie brain, she must think like this: "Life is good now, but if these people fail me, I had better have a Plan B. And a Plan C. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again."

Tags: , . Cross-posted to Nature Blog.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

"The Dark Side"

Andrew Sullivan links to this video clip from Trading Spouses: the fundamentalist Christian mom's meltdown. Moral: beware of people who pronounce Tarot to rhyme with "carrot." According to the network's episode synopses (here and here), she did take the tainted, demonic money in the end.