Thursday, February 25, 2010

Gallimaufry with Chariots

• Icelandic Pagans curse the nation's economic rivals. See what happens when you mix polytheism and international banking? (Via Pagan Newswire Collective.)

• I do like what Iceland may do for freedom of the (online) press.

• We are the Empire, and we have the chariot-racing to prove it. Video no. 2 is the better one. Go Greens. (Via LawDog.)

• American pop culture is not keen on reincarnation as a plot device?

• Once again, Wicca as "the Other" gets tangled up with current political debate

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Weird Toys

From Dark Roasted Blend, a selection of weird and steampunk toys, activating "the threshold between wonder and horror."

Alien Clone Baby, anyone?


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Slavery, Vikings, and Charlemagne

Here is a little bit of synchronicity in my historical reading. I am not sure if it "proves" anything, other than the fact that it is difficult to sort people into "good guys" and "bad guys."

1. At the library, I recently picked up The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: New Directions in Early Medieval Studies, ed. Jennifer R. Davis and Michael McCormick.

I wanted to look for some material on agriculture—the adoption of the three-field system, wheeled plows, etc.—but I was sucked into a chapter entitled, "Strong Rulers—Weak Economy? Rome, the Carolingians and the Archaeology of Slavery in the First Millennium AD" by a German scholar, Joachim Henning.

Here are two figures that I have lifted from his work:

As I used to tell my students when we talked about American religion and slavery, the Roman empire back in Jesus' time ran on slavery the way that our civilization runs on petroleum. (And Jesus had nothing to say about it.)

Slavery requires chains and shackles, lest the slaves wander away. Figure 2.1 is a map of archaeological sites (farms, villas, plantations) containing shackles.

The second figure graphs shackle finds over time in Gaul (France, roughly). They rise during the Roman times, then plunge during the Merovingian dynasty, during the so-called Dark Ages.

But then shackle finds—and hence presumably slavery—rise during the Carologian dynasty. Its founder, Charles Martel (ca. 688-741), stopped the Islamic expansion into Europe. His grandson Charlemagne (Charles the Great) is a huge figure in medieval western European history, but his actions included the slaughter of more than 4,000 Saxons who resisted conversion to Christianity.

There was a European slave trade in Pagan, polytheistic Roman times—and it continued into Christian times, up through the 1400s, at least—and then it was time for Columbus!

2. Meanwhile, a British historian suggests that Viking raids on Europe might have been payback for Charlemagne's forced-conversion program. (Via the Covenant of the Goddess NPIO blog.)

But before you annoint the Vikings as the pro-Pagan "good guys," remember that they were in the slave trade too, particularly in what is now Ireland and Russia.

As some people say about their relationships on Facebook, "It's complicated."

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A Christian Minister Says the Right Things (Mostly)

The US Air Force Academy's official site for Pagan ritual has received a lot of attention. I first mentioned it on January 27 when I saw the Air Force news release.

In faraway Virginia*, Eugence C. Buie, a retired Disciples of Christ minister, wrote an op-ed piece criticizing his local newspaper's own editorial about the USAFA stone circle:

It is unseemly to make fun of things we may not understand, particularly religions chosen and valued by others. That is not a strange thing to say in America where it used to be customary to honor and respect everyone’s “freedom of choice,” especially where religious beliefs and practices are concerned.
Some people I know jumped on one phrase in the piece, "Granted, some kinds of Wiccan worship could be considered evil." Frankly, I have no idea what he meant, since he just tosses that line out there without any further explanation. Sex in the circle? Drumming all night? Wearing too much crushed velvet?

(And, yes, he is conflating Wicca and to some extent Druidism with all Paganism.)

It's a tribute to all the Pagans who do interfaith work that people like Buie are, however grudgingly, started to respect our right to be here.

Getting one Pagan blog—Jason Pitzl-Waters' Wild Hunt— ncluded in a survey of the religious blogosphere is progress too. (I remember when BeliefNet wanted my own blog on their Blog Heaven page but some months later purged it along with other non-monotheist blogs, no explanation given.)

* Virginians are not required to comment.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Sex with Icelandic Elves

I linked to a site about sex with ghosts, so why not sex with elves?

Call them "the hidden people," call the them the Shining Ones, whatever you like. These are not garden gnomes we are talking about: "They're not like small, ugly gnomes. They're more like tall and beautiful."

And they know what you want in bed. Whew!

"It would make the world a better place if more people had sex with elves."

I remain agnostic about that, but I would still love to see Iceland.

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Freelancers, Move to the Library!

An op-ed piece in Sunday's Denver Post made an interesting suggestion. People who work—or want to look like they are working—in coffee shops ought to move to their public libraries instead.

Then coffee shops could go back to being coffee shops—places of intellectual ferment and conversation, instead of solo customers taking up a booth or table while they stare into their screens.

And libraries would have a new clientele of media-savvy communicators to lobby for them.

Cafes have always served as venues for contemplation and composition, though historically conversation has shared an equally prominent place at the table. But with the increasing availability of cheap and free wireless access in cafes, and the recession-laden economy rendering private work spaces less affordable, the cafe has become an obvious alternative for virtual workers. The phenomenon's effect on cafe owners has been well-documented. There is a delicate balance between filling seats, particularly during daytime hours, and the cafe's need to turn a profit through a steady turnover of customers.

The ubiquitousness of technology has had consequences far beyond the complex relationship between cafe owners and their customers in-residence. It has perceptibly drained cafes of a more traditional social atmosphere for engaged, dynamic and discursive exchanges. Stephen Miller, author of Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, has documented the fall and labeled those de rigeur accoutrements of modern living — the cellphone and the iPod — as "conversation avoidance mechanisms" or worse, "a distraction that undermines conversation."
A few years ago, my university library installed a coffee bar and wireless Internet—the latter part of a campus-wide project. It was like civilization!

Now the building is gutted for remodeling, but I expect to see the coffee bar back.

Some public libraries have added coffee bars. More of them should.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

BeliefNet Article Looks at Wiccan Chaplain's Lawsuit

As mentioned here previously and at The Wild Hunt, Patrick McCollum, volunteer Wiccan prison chaplain in California, has sued the state to overturn a policy of hiring paid chaplains only from certain religions.

A new article at BeliefNet summarizes the case. Excerpts:
Supported by interfaith scholars and church-state separationists, the Rev. Patrick McCollum argues that the state policy has the "pernicious effect" of depriving inmates of other religious backgrounds from getting the services they need and deserve.

The court challenge began when McCollum, 59, a prominent leader in Wiccan and correctional circles, applied and was rejected for a full-time position as a chaplain in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"When I got to the personnel office, they refused to give me an application to apply for a state job because they knew that I was a Wiccan," said McCollum, director of Our Lady of the Wells Church in Moraga, Calif., and leader of the National Correctional Chaplaincy Directors Association.

"They never reviewed my qualifications.
 Religious-studies professor and lawyer Barbara McGraw responds to an amicus brief in the case--from a conservative Christian group supporting the state's position--here:
In other words, genuine Christianity supports religious rights for all. Christianity was not at the founding, nor is it now a monolithic "ism" that justifies the domination and suppression of others--not even Wiccan/Pagans.
An amici curiae brief on McCollum's side filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Anti-Defamation League, and other groups is also available (PDF file).

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Is Your Tuesday Fat or with Pancakes?

Venetian Carnival reveler taking a cappuccino break.

It's that fat Tuesday again, and offers a selection of Carnival pictures from around the world.

This one comes from Venice. "But Italian Catholicism always had a strong pagan residue in its cult of the saints as well as in its vaguely erotic sadomasochistic imagery," says the expert on all things Catholic and small-p pagan.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Seen any Lizard People Lately?

Readers in Los Angeles: the lizard people have been quiet lately, but you should still be on your guard. Helpful information is available

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Monday, February 08, 2010

I'm Glad That is Settled

From my current reading, Essentials of Fire Fighting:

As you look at the world around you, the physical materials you see are called matter. It is said [passive voice!] that matter is the "stuff" that makes up our universe.


Maybe instead of being a volunteer firefighter I should be editing the textbooks.

Anyway, got to study for the test on Saturday.


Air Force Academy "Turns Back Time"

Back on January 27th, I mentioned that the US Air Force Academy, located near Colorado Springs, had created a ritual space for followers of Pagan religions.

Jason Pitzl-Waters has been keeping up on various reactions, including some form of magic performed by (presumably) evangelical Christians, who think that putting two large crossed bits of lumber on the circle will somehow negate it. (My first thought: firewood!)

At least one writer to the Colorado Springs Gazette accuses the Air Force of romanticizing druids who performed human sacrifice.

It is shocking to contemplate a revival of druidic sacrifice. Can you imagine the Air Force procurement process for victims? Would there be a no-bid process or would there be competitive bidding?

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Friday, February 05, 2010

Who is Your Ancient Philosopher?

I took the quiz and came up with Epicurus, who is truly "the most misunderstood philosopher of antiquity."   Watch a short video about him.

Take the My Philosophy Guru test yourself!


A Vodou Resource Site

Lots of talk about Vodou lately here among the polytheists (and among those who "view with alarm").

Christopher Chase, the Pomegranate's reviews editor, offers this link to a sort of portal site on Vodou. Reviews editors are like that.


Magical Dolls and Missionary Board Games

From Publishers Weekly, a short review of a new book co-authored by Nikki Bado-Fralick, my co-editor in the Pagan Studies book series (This book is not a part of that series, however!)

Toying with God: The World of Religious Games and Dolls by Nikki Bado-Fralick and Rebecca Sachs Norris, Baylor Univ.

For Bado-Fralick and Sachs Norris (religious studies professors at Iowa State University and Merrimack College, respectively), religious games and dolls are charged with “the magic of childhood combined with the mystery of religion.”

The authors brilliantly use their subject to reveal a complex interplay between worship and the workings of popular culture. A detour into ancient divination practices using dice, magical dolls, and sports as ritual shows these items to be anything but superficial, and raises a central question: why do religious playthings often evoke feelings of unease?

Like the religious toys it analyses, this book is at once fun and serious business. Dolls like Buddy Christ and Nunzilla or unwinnable Buddhist board games may produce a few perplexed laughs, but a game like Missionary Conquest, won by setting up the most global missions, has an undeniably colonialist edge.

The authors also use toys and dolls to explore consumerism, feminism, politics, and the nature of ritual and play. In this readable and fresh look at religious culture, the authors are critical and respectful. They’d rather cast dice than throw stones.

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Don't Visualize, Organize!

That is the takeaway message from Barbara Ehrenreich's new book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

Like much of Ehrenreich's writing, it is fueled by righteous anger.

First, as a breast cancer patient, she is disgusted by the happy-face positive thinking of what she calls "pink ribbon culture":

The cheerfulness of breast cancer culture goes beyond mere absence of anger to what looks, all too often, like a positive embrace of the disease  (27).

From there it's often into the "motivational" business culture that routes laid-off employees into seminars where they learn to be "a brand called you."

And there is "prosperity theology" in the churches, a/k/a "God wants you to be rich," and "positive psychology" for the non-churchgoing.

Not to mention the "prices will always go up" thinking that contributed to the recent real-estate bubble!

And in Ehrenreich's view, it's 99 percent bullshit, a new synthetic Big Pharma opiate of the masses that prevents people from clearly seeing their economic and political quandaries.

She does give some space to a fairly mainstream history of creative visualization (or whatever you want to call it) via New Thought, Christian Science, and so on.

Reading Bright-sided as an adherent of a magical religion, I obviously have some disagreements with Ehrenreich's wholesale condemnation.  These things work, sometimes with unexpected results--hence the old admonition to be careful what you ask for.

So where do we draw the line between possible and not possible? I do think that "visualize world peace" is a fruitless task, although one may act in a peaceful manner. And whatever you seek under the idea that "thoughts are things" has to be backed up and affirmed by tangible actions.

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

What a Difference the Suffix '-ess' Makes

Following a link from another religion blog, I dropped into today on Beauty Tips for Ministers (subtitled "Because you're in the public eye, and God knows you need to look good.")

I read this:

SO many of you have written to let me know that TLC will be airing an episode of “What Not To Wear” this Friday during which they make over a young, beautiful Episcopal priest.

And I was thinking, "Well, this is going in a homoerotic direction" when the truth hit me.

But I suppose if you want to be chased out of an Episcopal church by a bishop swinging his crozier, start talking about the "young, beautiful priestess."

What difference that "-ess" makes. You know why, don't you?


It does not matter if you are speaking of the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome or someone more contemporary. To the monotheistic mind, the word "priestess" seems to conjure up "fertility rites," flowing hair, and orgiastic drumming. Ishtar! Jezebel!

Traditional Episcopalians and other Christians opposed to the ordination of women have used "priestess" as a slur before--and maybe they still do.

No, having women in sacramental, priestly roles is pretty scary, and so the only thing to do is to pretend that they are men under those robes.

Never before has a chasuble looked so much like a burqa.

(And one Episcopal priestess-in-training fears that vestments designed for men make her butt look too big--but that is a separate issue.)

The issue is that religion can be very sexy. Religio-magical power can be felt as erotic power, which why clergy often get into scandalous situations.

Female beauty plus sacramental (i.e., magical) power? There is nothing in the Book of Common Prayer about handling that!

So must they just pretend it's not there?

And what do we Pagans do?

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The World of Esotericism

The University of Amsterdam has one of just a few graduate programs in the study of Western Esotericism, which is often contrasted with Christianity as follows (from a lecture handout based on work of Antoine Faivre).


Personal deity                              
                         Impersonal deity
Creation of the world by fiat        
                       Emanation of world in stages
Material and evil are real             
                      Material and evil ultimately unreal
Humans as creatures                  
                      Humans as divine sparks
                       Entrapped souls
                       Ignorance, forgetfulness
                      spiritual disciplines/exercises
Afterlife in heaven or hell             
                      Afterlife in new learning situation

(Note, I do not consider Paganism and esotericism to be identical, although many esoteric elements show up in contemporary Paganisms.)

All of this is a lead up to a fascinating web page put by the esotericism program at the University of Amsterdam, showing relationships between esoteric thought, music, art, and philosophy.

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Are Epiphany Dreams Found only in the Past?

The Bryn Mawr Classical Review's book-review feed recently served up a review of William V. Harris's Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity
The reviewer writes,

Some combination of [cultural expectations, generic demands, and the imperatives of performance and publication.], Harris argues ...  accounts for the relative frequency in antiquity of the epiphany dream, in which an authoritative figure visits the dreamer and makes a significant statement, and for its rarity in the post-Enlightenment West.
He goes on to argue that if readers say that they too have epiphany dreams, it don't prove nuthin':

No doubt some reader of this review is now saying, "But I had an epiphany dream just the other night!"  That is the problem with studying dreams:  one must work hard to free oneself from dependence on anecdote and from the powerful attraction that dreams have for those who dream them.  Appealing to concepts of "selfhood" or "personality" will only reinforce these tendencies by compelling the question, "What does this dream tell us about you?"  Harris chooses instead to concentrate on ancient descriptions of dreams and reports of actions based on them.  This is a book about dreaming, not about dreams; that is, about behavior and experience in antiquity, not about the ancient self.

If I tell it, it's only an "anecdote," but if someone back then wrote it, it's a "description" and thus useful? But if you act upon the advice of the dream, does that count?

"Epiphany dreams" are not common, but when you have one, you know it.

My example (oops, an ancedote!) was a dream that--at a time when I was not consciously thinking about it--told me to quit my job and go to graduate school in religious studies.

When I awoke with the dream-voice echoing in my ears, I knew that "some god or daemon" had spoken. I immediately started researching university programs, thinking without irony that now I knew what was meant in those biblical accounts of "the Lord spake unto Abraham" or whomever.

Someone or something sure enough spake unto me, and I knew I had to follow the instructions. Or else.

Anyone else had a real epiphany dream? Show of hands? Yes, I thought so.

As to the academic study, there is, I have learned, an almost-complete disconnect between the academic study of ancient Paganism and the study of contemporary polytheism, Paganism, etc.

The former people are mostly in Classics and history, they have an academic heritage a couple of centuries old, and they publish in their own journals, attend their own conferences, and so on.

The latter field only began to take shape in the 1990s.

Some study of ancient Pagan religion does sneak into the Society of Biblical Literature, and when the SBL goes back to having its annual meeting together with the American Academy of Religion's meeting in 2011, maybe, just maybe, there might some crossover.

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Monday, February 01, 2010

Celebrating the Season, However You Do It

Anne Hill has her annual Brigid Poetry Festival going—check the comments for linkage.

Me, I just had to get Out. Cabin fever was setting in, and walking the dogs close to home or going up on the ridge to cut firewood just was not curing it.

So we strapped the touring skis to the Jeep, loaded the dogs, and drove up to a higher, snowier place to ski a few miles, get sunburnt, and have one minor dog incident when they discovered a partly eaten snowshoe hare (maybe a bobcat's leavings).

Naturally they ate it. They need to demonstrate now and then that they understand that dog food does not always come in cans and sacks.

We stopped at Amicas in Salida for pizza. I found myself watching a grey-haired couple waiting to order. He looked to be in his eighties, yet he was wearing  up-to-date "powder overalls" (like this).

I wondered if he just wore them for practical reasons, or was he someone who tore up the slopes at A-Basin or Winter Park in his younger years? Or even one of the fast-dwindling group of old men who wear sun-faded 10th Mountain Division patches sewn to the sleeves of high-tech ski jackets?

The earth keeps spinning.

After a couple of pints of Headwaters IPA (me) and some cabernet sauvignon (her) and sufficient pizza, we feed some crust to the dogs back in the Jeep, as a promise of the dinner (from a sack) waiting for them at home.

We started down the canyon of the Arkansas River, and M. remarked that it was not yet dark at 5:30 p.m. 

The earth keeps spinning, whirling us on to the next thing.