Friday, March 05, 2010

Pagans, Folklore, and Dogs

Click over to Pagans for Archaeology, where Yewtree interviews Australian Pagan scholar David Waldron, author of Shock! The Black Dog of Bungay: A Study in Local Folklore, about dogs, folklore, and the Pagan revival.

I think a key issue for me was that transmission of symbols, images and ideas from the pagan past are very fragmentary, complex and ambivalent. People are very quick to throw the “Pagan Survival” label around because they so badly need to feel a connection to the past and a feeling of pastness in what they do. People can also be very quick to deny connection to a Pagan past when debunking. One thing that was really apparent to me when doing my research on the Black Dog of Bungay from a local history perspective, was that it is not a zero sum game. Let’s look at the Black Dog of Bungay for example. There are fragments in the myth from the Celts, Vikings and Romans for example. However, if I was to speak to a 16th century Puritan in Bungay he may not even know what a Celt was and would certainly take offense at the suggestion his view of the attack on St Mary’s church by a Black Dog or “Devile in such a likenesse” was Pagan.

He makes some interesting points about how folklore incorporates outside interpretations, digesting them, and  presenting them as truly indigenous and original. Worth a read.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Gallimaufry with Snow

Snow has been falling all day, and I am working on a lengthy book review, so here are some links:

• Sannion has the best idea for a New Testament zombie novel, and everyone wants him to write it. Already, I would not look at the book of Acts the same again ever.

• Hrafnkell Haraldsson has produced a string of thought-provoking posts, so go read A Heathen's Day.

• Witchdoctor Joe writes on "Samhainophobia Vs Samhainsensationalism."

• The photo is part of our outdoor shrine.

• I have visited England twice but never been to Glastonbury. Still, I keep an eye on its thriving retail scene through this blog.

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Friday, October 09, 2009

I Need Some Creative Juices

And how I know where they come from.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Did a 'Pagan' Bury the Staffordshire Hoard?

The "Staffordshire Hoard" is a cache of 7th-century Anglo-Saxon sword jewels and other items recently found in England (and a great boost for metal-detector sales, no doubt).

The caption on one slide of the golden hoard suggests that because a gold cross was folded in on itself before burial, the person who buried the treasure might well have been (wait for it) a "pagan."

England was becoming Christian by then, although the Norse were not. But I think he (?), whether Pagan or Christian, might as well have been looking at the cross as so much gold rather than superstitiously thinking he would be smitten if he deformed it.

Here is another slide show. Magnificent stuff. How long until we see Ren Faire reproductions?

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Sunday, September 06, 2009

Paganism is Fa-abulous

So says the News of the World, so consider the source.

Both Emma and Amie are in the throes of planning their weddings for next year - or hand-fastings, as they're called in pagan circles, because the couple's hands are tied together during the ceremony.

Both are planning outdoor ceremonies officiated by a high priest and priestess, using pagan vows they'll compose themselves. Emma's gown will be green "to symbolise new beginnings", while Amie has plumped for a purple medieval-style dress, followed by a hog roast on the beach. Conventional it isn't - but if paganism continues to grow, hand-fastings could be the next big thing.

Emma has Pagan tattoos!

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Doreen Valiente remembered

Hecate reminds us that ten years have passed since the Wiccan world lost Doreen Valiente, who still does not get enough credit for her part in creating the religion.

I corresponded with her some in the 1980s, but, ironically, arrived in her home of Brighton just weeks after passing. Riding city buses with E. John Jones, he would point and say, "Doreen used to live on that street," or "Doreen had a flat in that building."

I got the impression at third-hand that there was a bit of struggle over who would become the official custodian of her papers and thus her memory--perhaps one of my British readers could enlighten us on that.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Crushed Velvet, Anyone?

A British newspaper posts a slideshow of tryouts to be the "Wookey Hole Witch," an event that came to the attention of the American Pagan blogosphere earlier this month. Watch it if you dare.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Druidry and Made-up History

Here is the YouTube trailer for a new documentary on British Druidry. Yes, that is Ronald Hutton at the beginning (long hair, glasses). (If the YouTube link does not work, try this one.)

And here is the video clip dissected with a sharp knife by a different British Pagan academic.

It's true: there is nothing in the historical record on ancient Druids (which would fill about two typed pages) about land ownership or the rights of women. The one speaker is simply making it up.

It is the "crisis of history" again. Can your religion get respect when it is based on non-existent "history"? It works for the Mormons, true, but not without some pain.

Hutton's Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain offers the whole history of making up Druidic "history."

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Monday, June 22, 2009

The Mists of Avalon and Its Antithesis

I recently re-read Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon for the first time in years, in order to cite it in a paper.

Now I am reading its antithesis, Simon Young's A.D. 500: A Journey Through the Dark Isles of Britain and Ireland.

Based on the fiction of a geographer in Constantinople writing a guide to the "Dark Isles" based on contemporary reports and present-day archaeology, Young's sixth century agrees very little with Bradley's except, perhaps, on the importance of Tintagel.

If Tintagel is a work of Nature's art, then man has, however, botched its decorations. The British Celts who live there are not great builders....The king's court is a timber shack, something approximating in size and finish to one of our royal stables.

You want all-wise Druids at the close of Pagan Ireland?

But even in their reduced state, these old men--the young with spiritual gifts turn to the Church--have a certain notoriety. Instantly recognizable for their curious cloaks and their shaved heads--each has a short tuft over the forehead--they walk from place to place officiating over oaths and sacrifices (it is better not to ask of which sort).

Young admits that the story of the last Temple of Bacchus in Britain is "necessarily speculative," but does offer sources for it, as for all his information.

Young's book is a useful corrective to the "matter of Britain's" multiple re-tellings--the last time I checked, library databases listed more than 900 works under the category of "King Arthur-Fiction."

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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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Friday, January 23, 2009

Gallimaufry with Old Bones

¶ Some British Pagans want to rebury a 4,000-year-old skeleton. It seems to me that they are just parroting NAGRPA language without realizing that (to borrow from another blogger) that the Archbishop of Canterbury has as much "blood" claim to the bones as they do.

¶ George Plimpton was an American writer of what was once called "new journalism" and is now called creative nonfiction. But this article about him in The Nation also points out to what extent famous literary journals were subsidized by the CIA as part of the culture war with the Soviet Union. Who says our government does not support the arts?

¶ Anne Hill defines "California Cosmology" and its evil twin.

Apparently "analog" now means "natural." I missed that.

So is the “planetary consciousness” of neotribal gatherings like Boom just window dressing for the same old hedonistic consumption and pursuit of distraction? Perhaps. But as a self-consciously visionary environment, Boom necessarily foreshadowed the apocalypse as much as the eco-dream.

¶ A wall painting at the Neolithic town of Catal Huyuk was often called the world's oldest map. But what if it is not a map at all? Would that mean that map-making was not practiced by "peaceful ancient matriarchies" but was invented by them evil Kurgans?

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Gallimaufry with Frankincense.

¶ Burn more frankincense in your rituals: it is psychoactive.

¶ From this side of the pond, I would say that if not enough young people are not taking up Morris dancing, they are not getting drunk enough first. (In England?! -- ed.) Will it be only the Pagans and that sort who keep it going?

¶ Five top faked memoirs of recent years.

¶ Aiieee, it's the end of the world! The solar storm will wipe out all our gadgetry!

¶ Aiieee, it's the end of the world! The Ice Age is coming!

So learn some basic skills and have a plan, I reckon. And burn frankincense.

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The Pentagram in 1964

I have more reviews coming, but for now, here is a PDF download of the first issue of The Pentagram, August 1964, price two shillings.

As far as I know, it was the first attempt to create a publication for the various branches of British Witchcraft, then only about fifteen years old, and it lasted but a short time.

Consider the paucity of the reading list on page 3.

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

Review: Living with Honour: A Pagan Ethics

Emma Restall Orr is one of the leading figures of British Druidry, and her book Living With Honour: A Pagan Ethics may be seen as an attempt for formalize the vaguely expressed ethical precepts ("If it harm none," etc.) that characterize contemporary Paganism(s).

Orr herself admits that "Paganism can appear fragmented " but that its diversity of belief and approach "is not always helpful those trying to grasp comprehension from the outside" (11). (I think she means, "Comprehend it from the outside.)

As have a number of other Pagan writers, she feels moved to act partly by social pressures. In order for Pagans and their concerns (e.g., "appropriate care of ancient monuments and artefacts"), "it is useful to be able to stand with one voice before the benches of a nation's authority" (11).

She wants to locate her ethics in nature. This "nature" is primarily planetary as opposed to cosmic—and she makes an argument about hurricanes and tsunamis that I would agree with completely: "The *Pagan acceptance of nature's destructive power is not about resignation, but reverence." You can have a relationship with planetary nature, but it is not all about you.

Asterisk-Pagan is Orr's special spelling for a Paganism with "a devotional reverence for nature" (35), and it is essentially countercultural and antinominan, mixed with a heavy dose of romantic tribalism.

But the more I read Living with Honour, the more I became aware of two huge omissions. One is Pagan philosophy. Orr knows that she does not want to return to a bloody, heroic duel-fighting "death before dishonor" type of tribal culture, as appealing as it looks from a distance of 2,500 years. So the book is not really rooted in the Northern European Iron Age cultures, despite a couple of nods in that direction.

Yet she almost completely ignores centuries of Pagan thought on ethics and philosophy from the Greco-Roman tradition!

The Stoics get a paragraph or two, and Epicurus one sentence that demonstrates the common modern misunderstanding of his teaching. The rest of the time, the reader is fed bits of the usual grumpy, depressed, and misogynistic 18th-20th-century gang: Schopenhauer, Hegel, Nietszche. (I will make an exception for Emmanual Lévinas, whose work has informed some other contemporary Pagan thought as well.)

The ancient philosophers ranged from the hardest of "hard polytheists" to skeptical materialists like Epicurus to the "honor the gods and do your duty" attitude of the Roman Stoics. And they had a great deal to say about living ethically in friendship, in marriage, and in civic life--even when (as under the worst emperors) one was caught up in a corrupt governmental system.

Why leave them out in favor of Schopenhauer, Martin Buber, or A.J. Ayer?

By contrast, Orr's book says much about cosmos and "the Other" in an abstract sense, but neglects the polis—the world of civic and social relationships. That is the second omission.

It may be that Orr finds participatory politics distasteful--"American democracy is acknowledged as a farce," she proclaims (6)--and would rather limit her wants and watch badgers. (Doing so would be Epicurean in the truer sense.) She admits to a fondness for philosophical anarchism.

But by neglecting the "political" (in the broadest sense of life in community) part of life, she has nothing to say on issues of rights and responsibilities, on how to be an engaged and "political" citizen.

Indeed, she rejects "any idea of duty" (323). If I ever have to teach another 8 a.m. lecture class but would rather sleep, I will remember that I have no duty to the university or to my students. I can just send them a group email and tell them to read the book on their own.

When Pagans (and *Pagans) come before "the benches of nation's authority," we need to make a simple case. Although a tiny religious minority, we will pull our weight. We do not ask for to be excused for our specialness, with sharia courts and kicking everyone else out of the public swimming pool.

Unlike fundamentalists of various sorts, we do not fear academic learning--Pagans invented the academy. And democracy. And Western philosophy.

Many of us are willing to take up arms for our nation, and we support our warriors. In all social realms, we are here, and we participate.

Thus, while I find much to like in Living With Honour: A Pagan Ethics--I do enjoy seeing intelligent writers wrestle with the issue of just what "nature religion" is--I cannot help but see it as crippled by its rejection of still-relevent Pagan ethical traditions.

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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 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, November 26, 2008


I found this video of "Roots" by the British folk-rock group Show of Hands at Rod Dreher's blog, where there is more discussion and more videos. The lyrics are definitely "crunchy" with a loosely small-p pagan tone. I think I need to watch all the videos.

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

A Ritual with Swan's Eggs

The November/December 2008 issue of Archaeology magazine contains an article titled "Witches of Cornwall," about odd, ritualistic or votive burials of skins, eggs, and other items at a place called Saveock Water.

These burials took place from the 1640s at least through the 1950s.

There is as yet no link to the article (so ask a librarian), but this site gives some of the same information.

The writer, Kate Ravilious, creates a purely hypothetical spell that might have accompanied one of the offerings:

Take a swan and wring its neck. Skin the bird and, under a full moon, lay its skin in a shallow hole with the feathers face-up. Add eggs--five for every child you want to bear. Atop each egg, place the talon of a blackbird and a black stone. Circle the hole three times, clockwise, then close it with a clod of earth. As soon as you are with child, empty the hole, or terrible things will come to pass.

(Wringing the neck of an angry adult swan might be harder than Ms. Ravilious realizes, however. Apparently her magic is not for the faint-hearted.)

Archaeology put a link up.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Knee Deep in the Bloody Ford of History

Sometime around age 15 I took home Vol. 49 of the Harvard Classics from the Fort Collins (Colo.) public library and read for the first time Beowulf and The Destruction of Dá Derga's Hostel. (The Ring saga is in there too, but I had already encountered it.)

is an understandable story, while The Destruction at least introduced me to the concept of geis, which is actually fairly troublesome when you are that age and trying to figure out where the walls are.

Not until my undergraduate years did I discover The Gododdin, which is totally different from the above. Like petals on a blood-soaked daisy, it is a series of short elegies for warriors who fought and died (more or less to the last man) at the battle of Catterick, c. 570 CE in what is now Yorkshire. (Poetic samples are at the link above.)

There is no narrative; it is as though you had short poems about Paul Revere, Molly Pitcher, George Washington, Daniel Morgan, Benedict Arnold, Baron Von Steuben, John Paul Jones, etc., without needing to tell the reader about the American Revolution.

Many critics as well as authors of fiction based on the poem tend to create dichotomies about it such as these:

  • It's the Romano-Celtic (mostly Christian) British versus the (Pagan) Anglo-Saxons, with the Celts carrying faded remnants of Imperial Britannia and the Saxons representing ignorance and barbarism.
  • It represents a nonlinear "Celtic" way of thinking versus the linearity of, say, Beowulf.
  • It is typical of how glorifying "beautiful losers" is part of the Celtic soul or something.
  • It demonstrates the tactical deficiency of mounted fighters without stirrups against the Anglo-Saxon "shield wall." (But cf. Battle of Hastings.)

Recently I picked up John Koch's The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark-Age North Britain (University of Wales Press, 1997).

I have no background in the Welsh language, so I cannot really follow his discussions of changes in phonetics and orthography over many centuries, nor the 24 types of medieval Welsh poetic meter, for example.

But I do appreciate the point he made about 6th century versus medieval nationalism. In the 6th or 7th centuries, there was none. What is now England and Scotland contained many little kingdoms -- and yes, some were ruled by Old Welsh-speakers and some by Old English-speakers, but they did not line up neatly on ethnic lines.

He argues that there were other Celto-British forces, allied with the Saxons, on the winning side at Catterick, and that another Old Welsh poem represents their heroic versifying about their victory. So much for beautiful losers.

Later, by the Middle Ages (13th century), when the line between England and Wales was drawn on the map and a greater sense of separation existed, The Gododdin was cast as Celts versus Saxons and used to reinforce that sense of separation.

Once again, the lesson is to be careful about projecting our categories backwards on the past, especially on the distant and mostly unrecorded past.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Gallimaufry with Bells On

These women know how to dress for an outdoor festival.

¶ Jason links to articles and web sites for new, nontraditional Morris sides. I am not sure if I would call what they are doing "reclaiming" -- nor do I know if Jason chose that word for its this-side-of-the-pond connotations. Any folk tradition changes with time, even as its practitioners insist that "we've always done it this way" or "we are just going back to the way that the old-timers used to do it." Lots of good links.

¶ Hecate has a Wiccan landscaping question. I have already contributed my two cents' worth.

¶ The US Postal Service is piloting a program to make it easier to recycle inkjet cartridges and small electronics. (Via Lupabitch.)

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

"Hearing Voices"

My series co-editor Wendy Griffin and my editing collaborator Graham Harvey (The Paganism Reader) appear on the BBC Radio 4 to discuss hearing voices and Paganism. (Real Player download -- you will hear some BBC news first.)

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

DNA, the Celts, and Roman Britain

I have started reading Stephen Oppenheimer's The Origins of the British, which I referenced earlier in my series of "Who's a Celt Now?" posts.

From a genetic analysis -- his main tool -- buttressed by linguistic studies and ancient written sources, he appears to be making these points:

  • The people of Ireland, Wales, western Scotland, western England, and the Atlantic coast of France came north from Iberia and southwestern France after the ice melted. These people spoke Celtic languages.
  • Conversely, they did not come from central Europe and are not connected to the so-called Hallstatt and La Tene cultures.
  • After the ice melted, eastern England did receive settlers from the Continent--but remember that back then, people could walk from what is now France to England, until the sea levels rose.
  • During the 400 years of Roman colonization, many (or most) inhabitants of the province of Britannia were probably speaking a Germanic language (related to Dutch or Frisian), not a Celtic language. If true, that is the biggest revelation for me.
  • The subsequent Anglo-Saxon invasion was not a genocidal "wipe-out," but was more like the Norman Conquest of 1066. One ruling class replaced another, but life for Jane and Joe Commoner went on as before.

I will post again after finishing the book.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

After the Witch Queen Steps Down: Maxine Sanders' Fire Child

In the 1960s, when Pagan Witchcraft started to gain widespread media attention, Maxine Sanders (b. 1948?) was one of its visible faces. A tall willowy young woman with bleached blonde hair, she was married in 1965 to Alex Sanders (1926-1988) for whom the Alexandrian tradition is named.

He was older, charming, verbal – she was photographed, his words were recorded. That’s her on the cover of my early hardback edition of Stewart Farrar’s 1971 book What Witches Do, long hair flowing, eyes downcast towards the chalice.

Now she talks -- in print as opposed to classes and lectures -- in a valuable autobiography, Fire Child: The Life & Magic of Maxine Sanders, 'Witch Queen'.

The book is not what it could have been. Material is not always straight-forwardly organized, punctuation is erratic and unclear, and words usedly mistakenly (“taught” for “taut,” “vice” for “vise,” that sort of thing). I fault the publisher.

Still, this is an important book. Sanders gave her life to the Craft in a way that few have, and she admits she paid a price: two failed marriages (Sanders, in the end, preferred men), financial hardship in the early years, breast cancer, and, most of all, the hardship of being always on-call in her role as priestess.

Marriage with Alex had been rather like a working relationship. Unconsciously, we sacrificed the more personal and sharing aspects of a normal marriage.

To read Fire Child is follow a trail of ups and initiations, rituals and happenings, magical politics, festivals and and visions.

Yet it is also a frank admission of the dangers of magickal religion. Coming from a background of intense, small-group work, she is prone to opinions such as these:

The modern Craft is a victim of its own success. Its tremendous growth since the heady days of the 1960s has outstripped the availability of experienced and reputable teachers, who in former days would themselves have served an arduous apprenticeship before being judged worthy to passon the tradition – and then only to a few.

(And she admits that even in her own group that rule was not always followed.)

Witchcraft is so often perceived as a young person's religion that it is good to read a mature priestess’s thoughts. Maxine Sander has gone through the fires – media celebrity, high-profile religious leadership, magic, suffering. Her book is valuable – “full and candid,” to quote Ronald Hutton’s cover blurb. I recommend it.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Gallimaufry with Big Rocks

¶ My copy of Fire Child: The Life & Magic of Maxine Sanders, 'Witch Queen' arrived, and I will post a full review soon. Short version: Better than I expected.

When the Goddess Ruled the Earth is a new quasi-documentary film on hypothesized Neolithic religion. The trailers are all shots of ancient megaliths with a "voice of God" (sorry) commentary. Looks like orthodox Gimbutas-ism.

My point is that you cannot necessarily tell by looking at a structure the religious views of its builders. You might be able to make an educated guess by analogy with known cultures, but without extensive, obvious archaeological evidence -- and better still, written evidence -- you cannot say. Is the "Venus of Willendorf" a religious artifact or a Paleolithic Barbie doll? Will we ever know?

¶ Fiacharrey, "the Bayou Druid," is making YouTube videos on Celtic Reconstructionism. Here is one.

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Monday, December 31, 2007

The Scary Countryside

Jason Pitzl-Waters notes an upcoming Guillermo del Toro movie:

The duo will be co-producing Born, a film adaptation of [Clive] Barker's story about a family who gets more than they bargained for when they move to the English countryside.

The scary countryside is a staple of British--and frequently North American--film-making. Perhaps that cliché is the flip side of the Frazerian notion of the countryside as repository of ancient beliefs and practices.

In movies, ancient practices are always scary. When my book Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America was in production, the first cover design (not used) was referred to as the "Children of the Corn cover" in honor of the movie stereotype.

Urban directors make these pictures for urban audiences -- who already harbor odd fears about nature and wildlife, like purse-snatching elk.

In British film, every picturesque village is controlled by a secret cabal of child-sacrificing Satanists, disguised, for instance, as the local branch of the Women's Institute.

The editor and publisher of our county newspaper came to dinner last night (they are married to each other) and we got to talking about this very cinematic phenomenon.

We decided that the secret cabal in charge hereabouts would have to be the [Blank] County Cattlewomen. Don't get yourself on their bad side.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Gallimaufry with Nut Brown Ale

John Barleycorn Reborn is a double CD compilation of dark folk music from the British Isles.

¶ Staying with the British theme: if you see this, you must be in Glastonbury.

¶ Now this is embodied Paganism.

¶ "Sexy witch" Halloween costumes (big this year) require striped stockings. Why is that? The "sluts and slashers" aspect of costuming bothers some Pagans.

¶ Another example of group disfunction?

¶ I missed DOR Day. Next year I won't. (I do wish bloggers would abandon white-on-black type. The only thing more eyestrain-inducing is purple-on-black.)

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Friday, June 15, 2007

The Wee 'Oss in Cornwall and California

Folklorist Alan Lomax's 1953 film of the Padstow, Cornwall, May Day festival, Oss Oss, Wee Oss! is now available on DVD, together with the Pagan hobby horse procession from Berkeley, California, and an updated film from Padstow in 2007.

Order before July 3 for free shipping.

You can also see small video clips from the original 1953 documentaryon the Web.

A nice touch: the two-sided DVD has both NTSC and PAL formats, so it can be watched anywhere.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Prince Charles, thatch, and the collapse of civilization

The Prince of Wales recently was quoted as saying McDonald's restaurants "should be banned" (in the United Arab Emirates, if not the UK).

What do we call that, "nutritional mercantilism"?

Although I admire him for his environmental work and his line of organic foods, I laughed pretty hard at Steve Stirling's fictionalized version of the prince in A Meeting at Corvallis, the final book of his post-Collapse trilogy. (Yes, I know, trilogies . . . )

I have mentioned Stirling's fairly realistic Wiccan characters, but the third book offers an England where now-King Charles rules, and he has imposed his aesthetic taste on as much of the nation as he controls. Houses must have thatched roofs, while farmers and laborers must wear the old cotton smock when they work outdoors. "De national dress, mon," says a Jamaican immigrant turned farmer.

Update: Alice Thomson calls the prince a true prophet.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Pagans Want Some Bones Back

Borrowing the rhetorical tools developed in North America, British Pagans are becoming increasingly vocal on the issue of "ancestral remains."

British pagan groups are increasingly asking for human remains and grave goods from pre-Christian burials to be returned to them as well. The presence of what they see as their ancestors in dusty drawers or under harsh display lights is an affront to their religion. To them, the bones are living beings, whose existence is bound up with their religious descendants and the sacred land.

I am friends with some of the British Pagan academics who have been pushing this issue hard. On the other hand, ask any geneticist: lots of people, most of them not capital-P Pagans, are descended from those ancient ancestors.

So let us admit that these demands are to a large extent a stunt. We are dealing with self-appointed spokespeople here. David at the Cronaca archaeology blog has other comments.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Death of a Chief Druid

The awen is a symbol of revived Druidry.
Tim Sebastion, chief of the Secular Order of Druids in the UK, died on February 1.
He was always in the swirl of controversy around Stonehenge. This site, although dated, gives a feel for how that has gone.

His order was formed in 1975 and the acronym was chosen deliberately, or so I have been told. Based on my couple of meetings with Tim (the last in a Bath pub in 2004), it seemed that by appearing to not be totally serious, he was able to be very serious.

He also held the Bardic Chair of Caer Badon (Bath) after founding a gorsedd (poetic competition) in 1995.

A ton of British Druid Web sites exist: Here is a sampling.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Helen Duncan's Family Tries Again for a Pardon

Helen Duncan, Spiritualist medium
Mary Martin was 11 years old when her father taught her to box. She would come home from school scratched and bruised, her ears ringing with abuse from the playground. Mary Martin had the unhappy distinction of being the granddaughter of Britain's last convicted witch.

Descendants of Helen Duncan, the "last convicted witch," are trying again for an official pardon.

It was the Spiritualists who worked hardest to get the old Witchcraft Act repealed, but the Wiccans who took advantage of the change.

The Guardian article, in my opinion, is incorrect in this statement:

Gerald Brousseau Gardner founded the modern Wicca movement in the 1940s, 11 years before the repeal of Britain's witchcraft laws. Followers revere nature, worship a goddess and practice ritual magic. In the 2001 census, 7,000 people listed Wicca as their religion.

On the contrary, during the 1940s Gardner was still checking out various esoteric groups and collecting initiations, which gives the lie to his statement about being initiated in 1939 at Dorothy Clutterbuck's house and thus finding the spiritual path that he had always been seeking.

It is much more likely that he and his associates were able to create Wicca in the early 1950s, after it was no longer illegal to call yourself a witch and after he and Cecil Williamson had founded their witchcraft museum on the Isle of Man.

The Boscastle Witch Museum is its successor. And it has a blog.

My earlier post on Helen Duncan is here.

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Oss Oss, Wee Oss!

Several clips from a 1953 filming of the Padstow, Cornwall, May Day "hobby horse" procession are available on the Web. The film was made by Peter Kennedy, George Pickow, and Alan Lomax, an American folklorist.

Some .wmv selections are here.

But the best clip is here, especially for its slightly eerie, archetypal ending, which some people say prefigures The Seventh Seal. UPDATE: This last link no longer works.

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Saturday, February 05, 2005

Helen Duncan, accidental godmother of Wicca

A movement is underway in Britain to clear the name of Helen Duncan, a Scottish Spiritualist medium sent to prison during World War II under the Witchcraft Act of 1735.

She was convicted of faking mediumistic abilities, but as this reviewer says, some people thought she was a true medium at times:

Her partisans, and conspiracy theorists in general, looked back to 1941, when at an earlier séance in Portsmouth Helen had raised the spirit of a young sailor. In life, he had served in HMS Barham. News of his materialisation soon spread among the families in the port. This was a source of dismay to the Admiralty, who had not yet admitted that the warship had gone down.

A film is now being made about her life.

What is the Wiccan connection? After the war, British Spiritualists lobbied Parliament to repeal the 1735 act. Eventually, it was replaced by a milder law. The repeal occurred in 1951--and suddenly here was Gerald Gardner proclaiming the existence of the hither-to unknown Southern Coven of British witches.

Cynic that I am, I think that Gardner & Friends only felt safe to create the coven then, in part to furnish a "back story" to Cecil Williamson and Gardner's new witchcraft museum on the Isle of Man, which opened that year.

Indeed, it may be the museum that makes 1951 significant, and that invoking the repeal of the 1735 anti-witchcraft law was merely another of Gardner's dramatizations.

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Sunday, July 04, 2004

Under the Spell of Sulis-4

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

At today's exchange rate, it costs US $16.38 to tour the excavated ruins of the Roman baths that give Bath its name. I paid the entry fee twice, last Sunday and last Monday. It was worth it.

Full of tourists as it is, the place still has a presence. Celtic British holy site, Roman temple-baths complex, Dark Ages ruin, medieval hospital for "leprosy" (whatever they meant by that term back then--any skin disease, apparently), 18th-century fashionable watering hole . . . layers on layers. And underneath it all the sacred spring still flows, 13 liters per second, or 250,000 gallons per day, however you wish to measure it.

LEFT: Diorama of a Roman priest with two visitors to the temple-baths complex. The temple of Minerva Sulis is in the background.

I had stayed at the White Hart Inn with seven friends; six returned to their homes in the UK after the conference, leaving just Doug Ezzy and me (the "rude colonials"), so we found new lodgings nearby at No. 3 Caroline Buildings and stayed on. After a "full English breakfast" on Sunday the 27th of June (a meal that seems always to include baked beans--I had forgotten that), we walked to the site of the baths.

They give you one of those audio guide receivers to listen to, as many museums do. Its soundtrack is a little too fond of Roman trumpet blasts, but they also include, for instance, the screamed Latin curse of a woman throwing a scrap of lead with a curse written on it into the sacred spring. Folks used to do that a lot, along with their votive offerings.

By the time I arrived at the dedicatory altars (placed in the sanctuary in fulfillment of someone's vow) and the tombstones, I was there. I don't mean some big reincarnational flashback; I've had those (maybe), and this was not the same. But I half-lost track of Doug, and the clusters of tourists were in the background. Here, underground as the site now is, I was ready to do it all: to cast my offerings into the water (still done), pay honor to Minerva Sulis (yes), and then submerge myself (sorry, not permitted). Only a clandestine dip of fingers, in defiance of the posted notice (not sanitary!).

Instead, the nearest thing is to go upstairs into the 18th-century Pump Room and to pay 50 pence (90 cents) to a man in wig and knee britches who decorously passes you a glass tumbler full of the water, tasting of rust and sulfur, and drink it down, down, down.

Not enough. Doug and I left to have a quick pint of the local Blackthorn cider with Alan Richardson and his lady friend, Margaret--Alan's new biography of the magician William Gray, The Old Sod, was recently published by Ignotus Press. And Doug went on to continue his interview of British teen witches for a study that he is conducting together with Helen Berger. And I was up the next morning and back to the Roman baths.

I let the audio receiver hang from its cord, instead just walking the ancient pavements, listening, looking, feeling. And taking pictures. Maybe taking pictures is a votive act itself, sometimes--perhaps there is a paper there or at least a couple of paragraphs. No doubt, had the Empire lasted, the priests of Sulis would be selling disposable cameras at a stall in the temple courtyard--or they would have leased the concession to someone else to do it. Pagan religions, after all, delight in the tangible. The relic, the souvenir--that is one of the Pagan substrata that underly the so-called world religions. We want to experience the gods with all our senses, so a soak would have been nice too. Instead, you get the T-shirts and the Aquae Sulis bath products in the museum shop. Oh well, it's a handsome T-shirt.

This 3.1 MB video clip pans across the Roman pool (facing east), showing the 19th-century terrace above the pool with Victorian statuary, various tourists, and a glimpse of the abbey in the background.

This 1.4 MB video clip pans from the opposite side, looking down into the entrance to the West Baths.

And then on to Bristol, for a too-short, 24-hour visit with Ronald Hutton, and then bus-bus-airplane-airplane-Jeep and home.

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Under the Spell of Sulis-3

Part 1 Part 2

RIGHT: Indigenous Avon skipper

The first evening of the consciousness conference ended with a cruise into the English rain forest, in the company of indigenous shamans. Our boat moved at a stately 5 knots or so down the dark and shimmering Avon, away from the town and into a green tunnel: the sinister Salix, the ghostly Umbellifereae. Techno/world music thumped in the main saloon in the indigenous dusk until, by a deserted mission station at the water's edge, our indigenous pilot swung the bow around, we returned through the ancient Weston lock, and glided back from the green tunnel into the stone walls of dreaming Bath.

In this video clip, the rain-forest cruise is leaving Bath, heading down the River Avon. Watch your head.

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Saturday, July 03, 2004

Under the Spell of Sulis-2

But before I could visit the temple of Minerva Sulis, there was the conference to attend. I arrived midway through the first day, 24 June, considerably jet-lagged, after a journey on two airplanes, two trains, and my feet.

Arriving at The Forum, a 1930s movie palace now home of the Bath City Church, I was a little perplexed by the church's name on the marquee. But the building looked right, and once inside, I knew.

For that weekend, the stage was decorated with potted Salvia divinorum, San Pedro cactus, morning glory, and other interesting plants--not quite the BCC style, I'm sure. But they fit with an auditorium full of psychonauts, astrologers, Pagans, and (mostly Pagan) academics.

We presenters really had only 20 minutes out of the allotted 30, once you subtract the introduction and the question-and-answer period. Some people (like me) still wrote out papers with citations, such for our own security, while knowing that we would have to condense them drastically.

My list of people whom I knew of but had never met included the grand couple of psychoactive chemistry, Alexander and Ann Shulgin, as well as two outstanding astrologers, Robert Hand from the US and Liz Greene from England, not to mention the two German ethnobotanists, Christian Raetsch and Claudia Mueller-Ebeling.

More to come. Meanwhile, some views of Bath.

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Friday, July 02, 2004

Under the Spell of Sulis-1

Back from England, I am planning several blog posts as I edit the photos and video clips to go with them.

Left: the base of a column that once helped to support a high, vaulted roof over the main swimming pool in the Roman baths, rebuilt in the 2nd century CE., when the town was known as Aquae Sulis, the waters of the goddess Minerva Sulis.

I spent four days in Bath, the town that grew up around the only significant hot springs in England, which have been a site of worship, therapy, and pleasure-seeking for centuries--and under Roman rule, visitors could have combined all three in a way never since equaled.

To get a feel for Bath, you might imagine what Santa Fe, New Mexico, might have been like if the center of town included the hot springs from Ojo Caliente or Jemez. Like Santa Fe, Bath is clogged with tourists, every third business is a restaurant, and you probably want a fat bank account to live there, and yet, underneath, its energy is flowing.

For me, a bonus to visiting Bath and the nearby port city of Bristol is that when making hotel reservations, etc., I never had to spell out my surname. Everyone was familiar with it.

More soon. . .

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Thursday, October 30, 2003

Comprehending the Great Vowel Shift

I love reading about the history of the English language. If I have 20 minutes to fill in my rhetoric class, I can give an impromptu lecture on that history, which I title (to myself) as "Why the English Language Is Like a Club Sandwich." But never having formally worked with the International Phonetic Alphabet in a linguistics class, I never felt that I truly comprehended the "Great Vowel Shift" that marks part of the transition from Middle to Early Modern English.

Thanks to the Web, this site, by Melinda Mezner of Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, makes it all comprehensible. Read the IPA text, listen to the sounds. After that, the diagrams might make more sense. Warning: lots of small sound files to download.

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Thursday, September 04, 2003

Evan John Jones 1936-2003

On the 2nd, Catherine Bundock, John's daughter, notified me that he had died at home in Brighton (Sussex) on Sunday evening. I met John via letter and telephone in the early 1990s, when at the suggestion of Carl Weschcke, president of Llewellyn Publications, he contributed a chapter to my anthology Witchcraft and Shamanism, the third book in Llewellyn's Witchcraft Today series.

We did not meet in person until 1999, after we had worked together on Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance, a book which is about 80 percent John and 20 percent mine, at most.

I'll miss John's wry take on politics (Pagan and secular), Army life and life in general. A veteran of British campaigns of the 1950s in Malaysia and Suez, he retained a fascination for certain now-obsolete vehicles, such as the M2 halftrack, and I had just located a historic halftracks poster that I had been planning to send him as a gift.

There is a room for him in the Castle.

You can read John's chapter on Robert Cochrane, magister of the Clan of Tubal Cain, online.Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance is out of print but still available second-hand through such sources as Advanced Book Exchange.

LEFT: John Jones, left, and Robert Cochrane, in about 1965.

Dave and Ann Finnin of the Ancient Keltic Church contributed this recollection.

On Sunday, Evan John Jones, author of Witchcraft: A Tradition Renewed and Masks of Tubal Cain exited this earth plane at the age of 67. While we were deeply saddened, we were not surprised. John had been suffering for the last ten-or-so years from emphysema and would wheeze while he puffed on the hand-rolled cigarettes he refused to give up. I suspect that he passed suddenly because the red-eared Hounds of Annwyn had to sneak up on him when he wasn't looking. They wouldn't have gotten him any other way.

We first met John Jones in the summer of 1982. He was a short, stocky Welshman with a pugnacious square jaw and flaming red hair who lived with his wife and three children in a neat little house on the outskirts of Brighton. We had contacted him through a mutual friend with question regarding the writings of Roy Bowers (a/k/a Robert Cochrane). John had been in Roy's group during the1960s and for the next twenty years (plus three visits and countless letters and phone calls), he gave us enough information and insight so that we could continue to explore Roy's system on our own.There is no way we can adequately express our gratitude to the man who was our teacher and guide for over two decades. What he taught us was priceless and we will miss him.

Dave & Ann Finnin

Clan of Tubal Cain

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Saturday, August 30, 2003

Solstice at the Stones

Archaeology magazine got around to noting the contemporary Pagan use of Stonehenge and Avebury circles. The link will give you an abstract of the article; the full version is print-only.

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