Monday, March 30, 2009

Church v. State, Mexican style

A crackdown on the cult of El Santo Muerte:

It is particularly popular with Mexico's powerful drugs traffickers, a link which may explain why, protected by soldiers, municipal workers in Nuevo Laredo last week used back hoes to tear down the shrines lining a road just across the border from Laredo, Texas.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cattle Mutilations: Déjà Vu All Over Again

I almost hate to write this post. It's déjà vu all over again.

Such was my reaction to a recent headline in the Pueblo Chieftain: "Two More Cows Found Mutilated."

Eastern Colorado was central to the "cattle mutilation" meme of the 1970s. I was younger and wishing that one day I would be a newspaper reporter so that I could really learn what was going on.

Later, after the furor died down, I did write for the (now defunct) Colorado Springs Sun. And at one point I assigned myself a retrospective article about "mutilation madness" that eventually spawned a feature in dear old Fate magazine.*

The Sun version left out my youthful experience with a lodge of Thelemic ceremonial magicians who planned to use magick-with-a-k to find the so-called mutilators and collect the Colorado Cattlemen's Association reward money (which never was collected.)

I write "meme" for a reason, and the Chieftain article illustrates it perfectly. The news media tend to follow these "rules" of reporting topics that are pre-judged to be non-serious.

1. Assume that these events are paranormal, inexplicable, or silly.

2. Treat anyone--such as a self-proclaimed UFO expert--as a legitimate source.

It happened in the 1970s, and it's happening now. The only part that is missing is the post-Vietnam War narrative in which crazed Huey pilots conduct crazed nighttime mutilation missions to get the adrenaline rush that they got in 'Nam. (Think Iraq and give it time.)

When I did become a journalist, I decided that the reason that editors did not take the whole cattle mutilation narrative seriously was that

  • it was rural
  • it did not fit into a neat box (sports, crime, politics)
  • it was rural
  • it was difficult to cover, and there were no official spokespeople
  • it was rural
  • it was non-serious, "soft," involving UFOs and what-not.
Consequently, the reporters involved were not necessarily the A-Team. At the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, the main reporter was a middle-aged feature writer, a friend of my dad's, who had mastered the art of being inconspicuous and inoffensive. She never rocked the boat and always wrote down what her sources told her. (She did have a more interesting life outside the newsroom, however.) Her stories were treated more as entertainment than as "hard news" -- and yes, the blatant phallicism of that term is entirely appropriate.

What strikes me about this newest story is the totally uncritical acceptance of the old 1970s narrative.

The mutilations are carried out with "surgical precision." Oh yeah? Did you ask any surgeons, veterinary or otherwise? Did you know that a cut in flesh, left to sit in the sun for a day or two, will swell and look smoother (more precise), even if made with canine teeth?

There is "no blood." Have you studied what happens to blood in a corpse, how it pools at the lowest point and coagulates?

And who is interviewed? Some UFO expert.

Who is not interviewed? An expert on four-footed predators. A specialist in veterinary necropsy (your local vet is not a specialist). An expert on narrative frames applied to inexplicable events, such as "satanic panics, " witch hunts, and other folklore.

The last is perhaps the most important. The woo-woo factor, you know.

A couple of days after the Chieftain article, another piece appeared in the Denver Post: "Wild Dogs Terrorize Eastern Plains."

Delivery drivers have been stranded in their vehicles, cattle stampeded and stockmen have lost sheep, goats, lambs, calves and even pet dogs, county officials say.

Do you suppose there might be a connection? There could be other explanations, equally mundane.

But once the woo-woo narrative frame is imposed, events are seen as strange and mysterious, revealing our fears about satanists, Vietnam veterans, or whatever the latest scary thing is.

* Chas S. Clifton, “Mutilation Madness,” Fate, June 1988: 60-70.

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Two Compliments in One Week

Two nice bits of feedback this week, which are rare enough in the academic-writing life.

First, someone emailed me about The Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics, which was my first big project after grad school, back in the early 1990s.

I am a fan of medieval history and refer to it on a regular basis. As other books get read and put back upstairs, the Encyclopedia stays downstairs, because I continue not to be able to keep the early Christianities clear in my mind.

Wow. And guess what, I cannot always keep them clear either.

That book was not written for love but for money -- a friend was acquisitions editor for the original publisher, ABC-Clio, and one day when I was in Denver, he took me to lunch and gave me the "What can you write for us?" speech.

I won't say it is a great book or a classic or anything, but it did make money and it did get me over the hump to where I was writing for an audience, not writing for my professors.

Then on Wednesday I went to the nearest PetsMart store for dog food and sunflower seeds (wild bird food). The store manager came to help out by serving as a cashier since the check-out line was growing.

He majored in English and took my rhetoric class a few years ago. I was in his line in the store, and when I came to the counter, he started telling me how useful the class had been, how he still uses some of the concepts of classical rhetoric when he does training classes, and so on.

Be still, my heart. If you want to make your old professors happy, tell them that you use (or at least occasionally think about) what they taught.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

For My UK Readers

(And others as well)

The Ladybird Book of The Policeman.


Blogroll Updates

• Technoccult is now called Renegade Futurist, although the old URL lingers. If you miss the "occult" part, they have suggestions.

Staying Alive is a blog about academic survival -- fictions and realities.

This Lively Earth is Priscilla Stuckey's blog on writing, animism, and other forms of nature-based spirituality.


Performance Studies and Reality Television

Living a cable channel-free life, I never saw Mad Mad House, but if you did and you want to read a performance studies-based analysis, I direct you to Jason Winslade's "You’ve Got to Grow or Go": Initiation, Performance, and Reality Television" (PDF file).

At the center of his analysis are the reality show's "alternate" characters, including the prominent Australian Witch Fiona Horne:

The five Alts were Fiona the Witch, Ta’Shia the Voodoo Priestess, Don the Vampire, Art the Modern Primitive and Avocado the Naturist. The use of just the first names and their “Alt” title was prominent in the show’s promotional materials and title sequence, in which their heads were placed paper doll-like (in South Park fashion) on small drawn bodies in cartoonish settings accompanied by equally cartoonish sound effects. For instance, a bubbling cauldron sound and a witch cackle accompanied Fiona’s brief scene. Further, these constructed characters exist as iconic figures in such settings as the Deliberation Room, where their gaudily painted portraits also feature prominently in the title sequence. These touches unapologetically fetishize and exoticize these characters and their “alternative” beliefs, perhaps to present them as more of a challenge to the mainstream contestants, who were predominantly young, white, upper middle class, and, if they had any religious affiliation, Christian.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Wikipedia's Gnostic Kerfuffle

Jordan Stratford, Gnostic priest and writer in Victoria, B.C., blogs about possible prejudice against present-day Gnosticism on the part of the Wikipedia cabal.

My own experience with Wikipedia is tiny -- making minor edits on three or four articles -- but I know that there are people who must spend hours every day on it.

Other stories about "revert wars" and similar cyber-squabbles involving political figures are common enough, so I can believe that one or two judgmental editors could mess with (in this case) Gnosticism too.

For some reason, Pagan-related articles have fared better. But I know that some of the Pagan editors are the same folks who were on the former Compuserve Pagan forum circa 1990--people who spend an awful lot of time in cyberspace.

As for modern Gnosticism, another trove of articles exists at the website of the former Gnosis magazine. Founding editor Jay Kinney is himself a priest of the Ecclesia Gnostica, a contemporary Gnostic church started by Stephan Hoeller (who thus far is still in Wikipedia.)

There might be a lesson here about depending too much on Wikipedia?

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Call for Contributions: Women in Magic

This call for contributions to an edited collection comes from editor Brandy Williams' blog.

Megalithica Books, an imprint of Immanion Press (Stafford, U.K./Portland, OR, U.S.A) is seeking submissions for an anthology on women working in the magical communities, particularly in communities where women have not been extensively published or in which women face stereotyping and misunderstanding within and without the community. These communities include (but are not limited to) groups and individuals working in the Golden Dawn, Thelemic, Aurum Solis, Alchemy, Chaos, and Experimental Fields.

Women have been involved in traditional and ritual magic since the late Victorian era. However women are often viewed as tangential to these communities or as soror mysticae, assistants to the magician. Today women are actively involved in ceremonial magical groups and lodges, alchemy, chaos magic, and Experimental Magic, overcoming stereotypes and creating new visions of magic within the communities.

Go here for the whole thing.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

1734 and All That

A missive showed up in my inbox lately, written by some Wiccan Web denizen, who although in a coven (this part was confusing) had had some sort of vision or revelation involving the number 1734, which led him/her/it to my Witches' Voice piece on the so-called "1734 Tradition."

I say "so-called" because I think that there is less there than meets the eye. I am too young to have known its founder, Robert Cochrane, but I did know people who knew him, such as Evan John Jones -- who himself was never sure of Cochrane's bonafides.

Something you learn along the path is that magickal ability does not always come packaged with moral uprightness. Actually, the Catholic Church says much the same thing in its doctrine of ex opere operato, meaning that the sacrament is still effective even if the priest is a sinner.

In North America, the "1734" (it's a message, not a date) tradition derives from a series of letters that Cochrane sent over a few months in the mid-1960s to Joe Wilson, then serving in the US Air Force. The two never met; Cochrane's suicide interrupted the correspondence.

When you read those letters--or Cochrane's lengthier correspondence with the English magician William Grey--you can see him hinting at Great Mysteries, playing a game of "I'll tell you one of my secrets if you tell me one of yours first," and suggesting that students try a new technique, which, if it is successful, the teacher will then claim to have known about all along.

He had the mojo, but he also (somewhat like Alex Sanders) had an inferiority complex about the Gardnerian Witches, who had a ten-year head start. His response was to claim access to traditions more secret, more traditional, more ancient--and then try to find evidence for them.

On this side of the pond, Gardnerian Witchcraft had arrived in book form in the 1950s and in person (the Bucklands) in the early 1960s. The interest in the Craft, however, was far greater than one "legit" Gardnerian coven could meet. Consequently, all sorts of new forms of American Wicca sprang up. The Cochrane-Wilson letters were copied and passed around, becoming one form of non-Gardnerian "traditional Craft" that people could recycle to show that they too had the Real Old Stuff.

This new mix of Pagan, ceremonial magical, old-school occultism, and other elements flourished in Southern California, of course. If you read Ann Finnin's The Forge of Tubal Cain, you get a lively who-said-what-to-whom first-person narrative of the Los Angeles-area Craft scene in the 1970s--including some discussion of links between the Society for Creative Anachronism, other SF-fantasy fandom and the Pagan movement, an area that has not been researched enough.

Finnin and her husband Dave have been group leaders for more than 30 years, and part of The Forge of Tubal Cain is devoted to issues of running a coven, avoiding problems, building a group mind, and so forth.

The remainder of the book gives portions of the training and ritual used in their group, the Roebuck, which may be seen as an extensive ritual and religious system based partly on Cochrane's sketchy teaching and inspiration. I recommend it, primarily as a chance to hear the thoughts of Craft elders talking about the things that work and the things that don't.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Will "Rome" Rise Again?

Pridian at Codex Celtica wraps up news on various movies and movie re-makes based on ancient history.

The killers of Thomas Becket as "The Wild Bunch"? Gag me. But this part is interesting:

A feature version may be in the works to wrap up the unresolved plot strands of the award-winning HBO/BBC TV series Rome, which dramatised the dirty-politics underside of Rome’s transitional period from republic to virtual monarchy amidst civil war. The TV series ended abruptly story-wise when the 3rd series was cancelled in mid-term. The original kernel of it was a reference in Caesar’s Gallic Wars memoir to two ‘ordinary’ soldiers who recover the Legion’s captured brass eagle. The original plan was for 5 seasons, the last focussing on how the Roman authorities dealt with the troublesome rise of a certain ‘messiah’ in Palestine, but cancellation led to this subplot being abandoned and other plotlines combined into highlights. The primary source seems to have been Suetonius’s gossipy Lives Of The Caesars.

Count me in for that.


Friday, March 06, 2009

Blogging in Fire Season

My days this week were split between book-editing, another writing project, and fire-fighting -- or worrying about fires.

In late January I joined the little rural volunteer fire department, which seems in a way to embody what the Founders meant by "militia" back in the 18th century.

M. and I also signed up as volunteers for the Colorado Division of Wildlife -- we have had one training day and no projects yet, but that will change.

Tonight, Saturday, and Sunday I will be involved with more wild-land fire training. That is our main concern -- stopping wild fires that threaten structures -- rather than structure fires as such.

I have a stack of books to review. It is a lot easier to think about writing on a day like today: cloudy, a wisp of drizzle in the air, not much wind.

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