Saturday, December 26, 2009

What You Know about Christmas Might Be Wrong

The idea that Christmas celebrations are largely lifted from earlier Paganisms is pretty well embedded in the culture, even among people who don't have a dog in that fight.

So let Biblical Archaeology Review stir things up a little with the idea that the Dec. 25 (or Jan. 6 for the Orthodox) date was not necessarily chosen to ride piggyback on Sol Invictus or Mithras but is based on Jewish tradition instead, one carried on by early Christians:

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.

Read the whole thing.

Finally, Hank Stuever is the author of Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present. You can read an excerpt here in the Washington Post "Style" section.

I know that I am in the same country as those "gated-community supermoms who [have]  volleyball schedules, tutor times and carpool arrangements abuzz in the BlackBerry that is [their] brain," because I have sat in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport and watched them clatter by.

This fact struck me though: Amid all the crafts-making and bazaar-holding and home-decorating, they don't know how to sew?

"It's the sparkle, spirit, and style of American Girls, yesterday and today!" intones a recorded narration as the lights go down. A Junior League member and a teenage beauty pageant winner emcee. While each young model, carrying a doll, takes her little turn on the catwalk, we learn her American Girl back story. Here's Josefina, who lived on a ranch in northern New Mexico in the 1820s. She had to sew her own clothes.

"Who here knows how to sew their own clothes?" the emcee asks. "Raise your hands."

In a room of several hundred families, nobody raises a hand.

"Moms? Anyone here ever sew? Anyone have a sewing machine?"

No hands.

"Well then, you can just imagine how hard life was."

Weird, eh? Even I have an old sewing machine for repair jobs. It makes life easier, just as my chainsaw and power screwdriver do.

UPDATE: If you have read this far and are not still muttering about Druids, take Stuever's Christmas-shopping survey.

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Friday, December 25, 2009

Cattle Mutilations and Occult Weirdness

A recent "cattle mutilation" report had the gang at Querencia turning to me, because evidently I am their go-to guy on weirdness.

After a couple of weeks had passed, I cranked out a four-part blog post series at my other blog:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

But I left something out: what I called my "Berlitz full-immersion summer course in occult weirdness."

I did write about that aspect of the experience for Fate magazine back in 1988. But I seem to have outsmarted myself and "filed" that issue in some very special place. It is not in the Box of Magazines in Which I Published Articles.

Naturally it is not available online, being from 1988. Too bad, because I had thought of scanning the pages and putting them on the web site.

Perhaps I could find a copy somewhere if there was sufficient demand.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

DUTS: Everyone Is Doing It

A blog of a nearby nature center just reported on how they drummed down (!) the Sun this year.

Nothing Pagan there, no, sir. (No snickering, please.) Their timing was a little strange, but their hearts were in the right place.

Here is last year's Denver-area drumming (YouTube video.)

As mentioned, the dogs and I did our own.



Return of the Sun, miraculous menorahs (officially over, yes), Baby Jesus—it's all good.

Did you make your reservation at Kentucky Fried Chicken yet?

And Io, Saturnalia!

(graphic lifted from another Pagan blogger)


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

One Night during the Cold War

I was walking around today in Manitou Springs, once a spa-resort town, located in the foothills west of Colorado Springs.

You should know that there are no springs in Colorado Springs--real-estate developers lied in the 1870s too. The springs are in Manitou.

But Colorado Springs has several important military installations: Fort Carson, NORAD, and so on.

Manitou is in a tight valley, and Ruxton Avenue, one of the main streets, goes up a side canyon, where the sun rarely clears the snow and ice, so you step carefully past the little storefronts where various hopeful artsy types open galleries and craft shops and then are gone six months later.

I looked down at one of the Victorian houses across the creek, and a memory of the Cold War years came back.

It was winter then too. M. and I, not long married, lived elsewhere in Manitou.

One night in the early 1980s, I was visiting friends who rented that particular house then, and I came out around 10 p.m to see a narrow view of the sky to the north.

The sky was glowing blood red.

Faster than you can read these words, I thought, "That's it. Soviet missiles have hit Denver. We're next. We'll all be dead before I can get home to say goodbye to her."

Then my rational mind belatedly suggested, "Maybe it's the Northern Lights."

At 38 degrees-something north, we do not see the aurora borealis often—in fact, almost never.

Had it not been for the planetarium shows I had watched as a kid at the natural history museum in Denver, I might not have known what I was seeing.

I went home then to find M. also a little shaken by the sight. After we reassured ourselves that we were still alive, we watched the aurora until it faded. It was front-page news in the next day's local papers.

It all came back to me as I walked back down to the main thoroughfare to look for her Christmas present. We're still alive.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Creeping Pantheism

Highbrow journalist Ross Douthat is bothered by creeping pantheism.

In a recent New York Times piece, he calls pantheism "Hollywood's religion of choice."

The "news hook" for his column is the new movie Avatar, which repeats the Pocahantas story once again. Some critic called it "Dancing with Smurfs."

To Douthat, "Avatar is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world."

And that bothers him. He likes the certainty of the monotheistic religions (he is Roman Catholic), even when you sense that he does not subscribe to all of even the Catholic church's dogma:

[P]antheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski noted, attributing divinity to the natural world helps “bring God closer to human experience,” while “depriving him of recognizable personal traits.” For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, this is an ideal combination.

I do not mean to dismiss his anguish:

The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response. Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality.

I am not sure that all Pagans have reconciled themselves to that truth either.

Do you ever sing,

We all come from the Goddess,
and to her we shall return,
like a drop of rain
flowing to the ocean

and wonder if there is too much loss of individuality there? I think that that is something like what Douthat is trying to articulate.

UPDATE: Another blogger watches Avatar and says that minus the sci-fi elements, it is a movie that Wendel Berry or even J.R.R. Tolkien might have approved of, for it presents a fully integrated culture in contrast to "our world of Facebook friends and warehouse shopping clubs."


Our 'Open-Source' Religion

Paganism as an open-source religion. (That approach works for some Jews too.)

Douglas Cowen, in his book Cyberhenge, goes even further, making an explicit analogy to computer coding: “Pagans are ‘hacking’ their own religious traditions out of the ‘source codes’ provided by pantheons, faith practices, liturgies, rituals, and divinatory practices drawn from a variety of cultures worldwide.” Given all that “hacking,” it’s no wonder that, as Webster says, “There are a huge number of pagan people in the high-tech space.”

Hat tip: Gus diZerega.


'Great Nights Returning'

Up the Hill to Yule

One advantage to living in the hills is that by taking different routes, you can pick the moment of observed solstice sunrise. I could sleep in until nine o'clock and still "drum up the sun" if I took the trail we call "the loop."

But the dogs want, need, and demand their morning run, so we go "up the hill" on the Forest Service road, into a sunrise that is already happening.

At the top I take a little side trail to a suitable boulder, unzip the case, and take out the frame drum. It booms out over the valley, past the black trunks of ponderosa pines killed four years ago in the Mason Gulch fire, past resurgent Gambel oak, past living pines that the fire missed.

In the south, that is where the fire started when lightning struck. In the west, that is Holt Mountain guarding its maze of overgrown skid roads. In the north, a steep brushy slope surmounted by rimrock. In the east, a glare of light.

Uh-oh, what does Fisher have in his mouth? It's the spare drumstick, and he is settling down to chew it. No! Come here! No serious damage, just dog slobber.

So much for drumming. The calendrical ritual is done. It is perhaps that calendar that unites us Pagans more than theology--to be doing something at these times.

Happy solstice to all!


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Black Metal Music: 'Abiding and Transcendent'

The wide world of academia  includes Buffy Studies and edited collections published by serious presses on the legal aspects of Harry Potter's world.

So why not a quasi-academic symposium on black-metal music?

He quoted lyrics from the face-painted, early-1990s Norwegian black-metal bands Gorgoroth and Immortal; he framed black metal as respecting some of rock’s orthodoxies, as opposed to the heresies of disco and punk; and he spoke of black metal’s preoccupation with “the abiding and transcendent: stone, mountain, moon.”.

(Tip of the steel helmet to Margaret Soltan.)


Monday, December 14, 2009

Contemporary Pagans: Indigenous or Not?

A kerfuffle over who said what about which flavors of Paganism at the just-concluded Parliament of the World's Religions is summarized over at The Wild Hunt.

This year's parliament in Melbourne listed "Reconciling with the Indigenous Peoples" as one of its key topics.

Some contemporary Pagans have been playing the "indigenous card" since the 1970s, when Oberon Zell and other Green Egg writers argued that Wicca was a form of "indigenous European shamanism."

The same claim has been made by some British Pagans in controversies over the management of megalithic sites in the UK and the treatment of prehistoric remains.

So are today's revived and re-created Pagan traditions "indigenous." I think not—not because they lack ancient roots, but because they are not generally connected to land claims and other current political issues.

In academia, in the world of [Fill in the Blank] Studies, "indigenous" has a more limited—and more political—meaning.  Hang around the people teaching, for example, Native American religion, and you may be told that the descriptor "indigenous" can only be applied to people who are or have been oppressed or colonized.

This claim might seem illogical. After all, were the ancient British not oppressed, and thus not "indigenous," until the Romans came and created the province of Britannia—at which point they were colonized. And then when the Roman legions left, they were not "oppressed" anymore, so not "indigenous."

Forget it. This is all about political issues now.

If you cut through the rhetoric, what is really at stake in discussions of who is "indigenous" is land—and sometimes related issues of political power, reparations, and trying to avoid sharing the guilt for how screwed-up the modern world is.

Most Anglosphere contemporary Pagans do not directly connect following an "earth-based religion" with political control of acreage itself, but in other places that connection is the underlying concern.

Particularly in eastern Europe, today's revived Pagans have made "blood and soil" arguments, saying that their approach is truer to the land than is Orthodox Christianity.

Anglosphere Pagans may invoke a sort of metaphorical or historical "indigeneity," talking about people who followed polytheistic religions a millennium or two in the past. In the West, our connections with our Pagan ancestors are intellectual (based on books) and theological.

We can talk about prejudice and Christian hegemony—but being blocked from giving a prayer at the county commissioners' meeting is not "oppression" in the sense that the Australian Aboriginals suffered, for example.

Islam, too, has its "death to the polytheists!" passages in the Qu'ran. Indeed,  I think anyone who opened a Pagan bookstore, etc., in Cairo or Islamabad would be oppressed in a hurry. Is anyone brave enough to revive the worship of Ishtar in Iraq?

In our religious views and practices, we have much in common with the tribal religions of the world.  In the academic study of religion, common ground is being found between "indigenous" and "Pagan."

In that limited sense, it is useful to show contemporary Paganisms' (that is a plural possessive) roots in pre-modern, polytheistic,  or "indigenous" cultures.

But before playing that card, we have to understand that it is usually connected to issues of land rights, grievances over such issues as removal of children into government boarding schools, and other current political struggles.

In those instances, the typical Wiccan, Heathen, etc., is probably going to be on the sidelines.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Cue the tablas and whale music

My title is lifted from Charles Blow's column in the New York Times, noting that the recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life report on American religiosity shows that things are pretty darn heterodox in the pews (no pun intended).

When 28 percent of Roman Catholics say that they believe in reincarnation (really?!), or nearly a fifth of Americans say they have seen a ghost, then perhaps American religion is "a mash-up of traditional faiths, fantasy and mythology."

Sounds almost Pagan.


Monday, December 07, 2009

Cannibalism in 'Old Europe'?

Archaeologists have found evidence of possible long-term cannibalism at a 7,000-year-old Neolithic settlement in what is now southern Germany.

Human sacrifice at Herxheim is a hypothesis that’s difficult to prove right now, but we have evidence that several hundred people were eaten over a brief period,” [Bruno] Boulestin says. Skeletal markings indicate that human bodies were butchered in the same way as animals.

Other researchers suggest that the people were merely cleaning up the bones of the dead for a ceremonial reburial. But vultures, etc., would do that job for free--and still do in some parts of the world.

But wait, this is Marija Gimbutas' Old European Culture, the peaceful ancient matriarchies. Were they eating each other?

I think that it is safe to assume that prehistory was much more complicated than we imagine when we look at it through lenses of theory.

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Sunday, December 06, 2009

Pagan Thoughts at the Parade of Lights

Last fall I looked for Pagan virtues in a small-town "Pioneer Day" parade.

Similar thoughts ran through my mind last night watching an even smaller town's "Parade of Lights."

The procession was about one block long: two pieces of fire apparatus, the local mountain search-and-rescue group (yellow jackets, hard hats, head lamps), another flatbed truck or two, various kids and dogs.

On the sidewalk, Father Christmas greeted spectators and drinkers.

Even though the American Thanksgiving holiday was established during the Great Depression to signal the start of the holiday shopping season, many towns now re-celebrate that spending spree with a "Parade of Lights," a secular solsticial event.

Most seem to be sponsored by downtown merchants' associations. (You can't have a traditional parade at a shopping mall.) Stores stay open late hoping to sell things to the spectators.

Some years ago, a Pagan group had a float in Colorado Springs' Parade of Lights, a first in that city, often jokingly called "Fort God" for its combination of military bases and big-name Protestant "ministries," like Focus on the Family.

Maybe the frankly secular and capitalist nature of the event was a plus. Pay your entry fee, get a place in the parade.

Other parades, such as those on St. Patrick's Day or Columbus Day, have their definite sense of "ownership." Sponsoring organizations are pickier about who they permit to march.

I wrote "frankly secular," but we Pagans see a brave display of light against the incoming darkness--not to mention the cold wind sweeping down from the mountains ahead of today's snowstorm.

We are used to the dichotomy of light and dark, of order and chaos, Apollo and Dionysus--or their equivalents. Perhaps commerce and gift-giving are another pair.

These pairs will contend with each other forever.

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Saturday, December 05, 2009

Father Christmas Works the Bar Crowd

Father Christmas makes his way through the bar after a small-town Parade of Lights (of which more later). No, that was Santa on the fire engine. Different demigod.


Thursday, December 03, 2009

Pagan Social Media and the Parliament of the World's Religions

Jason Pitzl-Waters posts a round-up of blogs, video, and other social media from the Parliament of the World's Religions.

I clicked the links, and so far what I have seen is pretty bland. Talking-heads video is bland even when they are our talking heads. But maybe we will see some more engaged and personal writing as the event progresses and as people reflect on it.

Although it's not my scene, I applaud those Pagans who want to do this kind of work. I could see myself note-taking at some of the sessions, for my own writing purposes.

And wow, what what a great place to play Flowing Robes Bingo. I wonder if anyone brought the bingo cards.


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

This Blog Post is Inappropriate

Edward Skidelsky nails it: the smarmy bureaucratic coercion of the word "inappropriate".

From Arts & Letters Daily, in the blogroll.