Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Review: Stewart Farrar: Writer on a Broomstick

Stewart Farrar was constantly writing (journalism, fiction, radio and TV scripts, and more) and recording events--even notes on every Wiccan circle in which he participated. When he and Janet visited our home in 1991 (their first speaking tour in the US), he narrated each day's events into a micro-cassette recorder, and I wondered if he would ever transcribe all those notes!

It should come as no surprise to readers of Stewart Farrar: Writer On A Broomstick that he identified with the Egyptian scribe-god Thoth and even believed that he had followed the occupation of scribe in a past life in pharaonic Egypt.

The story of how he visited Alex and Maxine Sanders' coven to write a magazine article, stayed, met Janet Owen (34 years his junior), and eventually married her as they led their own hived-off group has become a Wiccan staple.

But as a good biographer should, Elizabeth Guerra starts with his upbringing as a bright, sexually repressed (he made up for that later) boy in a Christian Science home, where the message was that illness results from one's own bad thoughts.

"This tenet remained with Stewart throughout his life," Guerra writes, describing how it ate at him after he suffered a stroke in old age.

As an adult, Farrar made his living playing the typewriter--even as an artillery officer in World War II he authored instructional manuals.

His initiation into Witchcraft and marriage to Janet brought on a creative surge. He wrote a series of magic-flavored novels and, with her assistance, a series of books on Wiccan practice.

There had been writers who were Wiccan before (Margaret St. Clair, to name just one), but now a professional journalist set out to describe and systemize everything. Consider this description from the catalog of Eight Sabbats for Witches's North American publisher:

Presents the detailed and dramatic rituals for each of the eight Sabbats - the seasonal ceremonies and festivals intimately linked with the waxing and waning rhythms of the natural year. Using their Book of Shadows (the witch's inherited handbook) as their starting point, practicing witches Janet and Stewart have added mythological and folkloric material, much of it personally gathered.

To complete the picture, they also give in full detail the rituals for Casting and Banishing the Magic Circle, and the often misunderstood Great Rite of male-female polarity. They include moving rituals for Wiccaning (the witches' equivalent of Christening), Handfasting (the witch wedding), and Requiem (funeral).

In a sense, it's technical writing and (although he never called himself one) doing theology. That's what happens when you try to impose intellectual coherence on religious experience.

One might say that the Farrars' work moved British Traditional Witchcraft (in the North American sense) a long way toward being a complete religious system.

Similarly, in the 1980s the Farrars gave space in their book The Witches' Way: Principles, Rituals and Beliefs of Modern Witchcraft to Doreen Valiente's attempt to track down the facts of Gerald Gardner's claimed 1939 initiation. Stewart always wanted to get the facts straight. As Guerra writes,

As a journalist, Stewart could never tolerate plagiarism. His attitude was that if you were going to educate people, then educate them: do not feed them lies, falsely claiming others' material as your own, and do not hide behind ego, because it does nothing to further the cause of education.

We need biographies or autobiographies of key Pagan figures, as I have argued before. Guerra's biography of Stewart Farrar (which includes tributes from others who knew him) is a worthwhile addition to our bookshelves.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

A New 3-Volume Work in Pagan Studies

Barbara Jane Davy, author of Introduction to Pagan Studies (The Pagan Studies Series) has a new edited collection out of source documents for Pagan studies.

Paganism (Critical Concepts in Religious Studies) lists on Amazon at an "institutional" price, like the other edited collection that I recently mentioned.

From the publisher's site:

This new three-volume collection from Routledge’s Critical Concepts in Religious Studies series brings together the best foundational and cutting-edge scholarship in one ‘mini library’.

Volume I addresses the emergence of Paganism as a religion. It collects scholarly analyses of the historical evolution of Paganism, and is organized under topics including debates of historical accuracy, influences on the development of Paganism, and the process of routinization in the religion. The second volume addresses the importance of environmentalism in contemporary Paganism, including work on how Pagans think about the natural world, environmental ethics, and related political activism. The final volume addresses the importance of gender issues and feminism in contemporary Paganism, and collects the best research on topics including immanence, embodiment, self-image, and sexuality.

Paganism is fully indexed and has a comprehensive introduction, newly written by the editor, which places the collected material in its historical and intellectual context. It is an essential work of reference and is destined to be valued by scholars and students as a vital one-stop research and pedagogic resource.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Yule and its Songs

The Northern Hemisphere winter solstice occurs at 12:04 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time on December 21. That's 5:04 a.m. here in Colorado, perfect for the people drumming up the Sun at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. (I won't be there--too far away.)

Remember to visit Archaeoastronomy.com for all your calendrical ritual-timing needs.

You can vote on your favorite Pagan Yule song(s) here.

A YouTube video of this year's drumming up of the Sun at Red Rocks.

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Gallimaufry and an Omelette

¶ Twitter, It’s the CB radio of the 2000’s. That's funny if you remember the CB radio craze of the 1970s.

Green Egg Omelette: An Anthology of Art and Articles from the Legendary Pagan Journal is shipping now -- my contributor copy just arrived. Oberon Zell's layout suggests the original pages, blending different decades into a coherent whole -- with lots of Arnold Bocklin type, on the principle that everything old is new again. (Is it coincidence that Böcklin himself loved Pagan themes in his art?)

Anyway, go buy one and dive in.

¶ I share James French's skepticism about Pagan-Christian dialog but some people obviously think it is worthwhile.

¶ Caroline Tully reprints some cogent thoughts on the role of the priestess--from 108 years ago. "What do we find in the modern development of religion to replace the feminine idea, and consequently the Priestess?"

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Yes, Hypatia, There is a Santa Claus

This fellow -- Santa Claus, Father Christmas -- has joined the lineup of graven images on our polytheistic/animistic mantel. That's Hermes' foot at the far left, followed by an ossuary jar of sharp-shinned hawk bones, and Hekate on the right.

We all know that Santa's name derives from the Dutch form of St. Nicholas, but what need have we Pagans of a saint whose titles include "Defender of Orthodoxy" (versus the Arian Christians) and whose biographers proudly proclaim that he destroyed Pagan temples. So forget that part.

The connection with Odin is fascinating but fragile. Others go off on different tangents.

As the scripture states, "He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus."

On the other hand, I really have no problem with calling this time of year "Christmas" in casual conversation. When I was in my twenties, I rigorously drew a line and would only say "Yule." Now I am more casual.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Book Posts in the Works

I am spread a little thin these days, and the below-zero (F.) weather the last few days threw some complications my way too.

Two book reviews are in the works. Here are the previews:

Stewart Farrar: Writer On A Broomstick, The Biography of Stewart Farrar by Elizabeth Guerra. Workmanlike biography of one of the key Wiccan figures of the late 20th century.

Living With Honour: A Pagan Ethics by Emma Restall Orr, noted British Druid. I am part-way through it and thus far under-whelmed, but I will complete it and write a proper review.

• Meanwhile, if you are a university library (or rich), consider the Handbook of Contemporary Paganism, edited by Jim Lewis and Murph Pizza. Yes, that's the price. If you thought that American reference books were expensive, consider the Dutch!

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A Foot of Fresh Powder

Finally some snow, enough to ski on our road and the meadow.


Monday, December 08, 2008

"The Growing Darkness"

Cat Chapin-Bishop's blog post on "The Dark" justifies my desire to nap on a dark snowy afternoon.

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Kink on Other Planets

Plain vanilla me, I have read none of the ten kinkiest science fiction books.

I give myself one point for knowing about the Gor series and knowing that there are people who like to act them out.

If you have read any of them, feel free to comment.

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Learning on the Ground

This is what online "learning" cannot do.

A writer from the Guardian accompanies some British secondary students on a field trip to Glastonbury. (I happen to know the teacher.)

The object, for Jamison, is not to deconstruct the stories and myths of Glastonbury. "The point is for them to experience the story, but not say if it is true," he says. "That is not what is important in [Religious Education]. I cannot say the Christian stories are authentic and the New Age worshippers and pagans are weirdos, especially as in the UK traditional religious groups are on the decline and people doing their own spiritual thing are on the increase.

Students have to learn that the place itself is a primary source.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Death by Self-Castration?

The bones of a priest of Cybele who lived in Roman Britain suggest that his career as a devotee of the goddess might have been short.

Experts in Roman religion believe that the Yorkshire cleric belonged to the officially sanctioned and important religious cult of a mother goddess called Cybele, who originated in Anatolia, present-day Turkey.

The cult was based on the great mother goddess and her toy-boy lover Attis who, guilt-ridden for having sexually betrayed her, went mad, castrated himself and, consequently, died.

The cult's tradition dictated that its priests had similarly to mutilate themselves in painful solidarity with Attis, often using a piece of flint or a sharp fragment of pottery. Ritual clamps were then used to staunch the blood, but Cybelean priests often died in the process.

Has the worship of Cybele been revived? With better medical care? There could have been a temple in Trinidad, Colorado, among other places.

(Via Rogue Classicism.)

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Galimaufry with "Season's Greetings"

¶ The Bad Witch mulls the issue of Pagan Yuletide songs and greeting cards. But, please, no e-cards. Nothing says "I couldn't be bothered" like an e-card.

¶ I am reading Keith Hartman's The Gumshoe, the Witch, and the Virtual Corpse. It's not as noir as it thinks it is, but it's a fun read if you like cozy gay Wiccan Baptist futuristic Southern mysteries.

¶ Don't laugh, kids--this will be you some day. Rock stars of the 1960s and 1970s in their parents' homes.

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Shrine Haiku #1

Deer turds at the entrance
to the outdoor shrine --
that's who's worshiping?