Freedom of Religion

One of the highly touted liberties in the United States is freedom of religion.  It’s easy to believe this is true when you can walk down any “Church Street” in many mid-size towns and go shopping for a theology that fits your outlook.  What remains hidden here, however, is that the freedom is largely restricted to the “Judeo-Christian” tradition.  (Yes, I know “Judeo-Christian is a disputed category, but it classifies several belief systems that share a basis in the Bible.)  For religions that don’t necessarily agree with the premises of the biblical religions the story is quite different.  That’s because, at least in part, our culture is based on the Bible and its limited worldview.  Colonists, convinced by centuries of Christian hegemony, had assumed the rightness of the Christian outlook.  The indigenous religions they encountered were, from their point of view, heathen.

The word “heathen” covers basically the same territory as “pagan.”  Both mean a religion outside Christianity (and, grudgingly, Judaism).  I’ve recently read that the etymology of heathen goes back to those who live in the heath, or country dwellers.  Although this etymology is uncertain, it does make a great deal of sense.  Christianity became an urban religion fairly early on.  Not only that, it shook hands with empire and became the basis for capitalism.  So much so that the two are now teased apart only with great difficulty.  This also means that indigenous religions have never really had a place at the table.  Especially when they challenged the dictates of the capitalistic outlook.

American Indian religion is closely tied to the land.  As Vine Deloria made abundantly clear in God Is Red, any religion committed to ideas outside those of Christianity will lose when the two come into contact.  One of the reasons is that secular science is based on a Christian worldview.  Indians believe in sacred land.  Since “objective” science is based on the Christian doctrines of creation, there can be no holy land apart from “the holy land.”  At its very root the basic ideas of other religions are dismissed and therefore treated as if they aren’t religions at all.  The Supreme Court continues to make decisions that violate the free practice of Indian religion.  The recent fiasco with the Trump administration should show just how dangerous such thinking is.  Like it or not, religious liberty means you have (for the time being) the right to be the brand of Christian you wish.  Beyond that freedom has a very different meaning.


Pagan Values

“Pagan” used to be a pejorative term. If we’re honest we’ll have to admit that it is still used that way by many people. All the term really denotes, however, is a believer in “non-Christian” traditions. The classical pagan was someone who’d “never heard of Jesus,” and therefore hadn’t bowed to the obvious truth. In the current religious landscape a pagan is someone who makes a conscious choice to follow different gods. Looking over history, there are plenty to choose from. If you don’t limit yourself to monotheism, there’s no compunction to stop at just one. Paganism is a flourishing religious choice today. Getting over the stigma will require effort for a long time to come, as a video a friend sent me from Heat Street shows.

This video show pagans in the US Army at Fort Jackson. It’s worth the three minutes of your life that it’ll take you to watch it. Pay special attention to what the chaplain says. We’ve been acculturated, through monotheistic lenses, to ridicule those who believe in many gods. We’ve also evolved beyond the stage where E. B. Tylor could inform us that the most natural form of religion is animism and we have to be taught to unlearn it. We’ve also had the natural human tendency to believe in magic laughed out of us. We can’t accept that anything could exist that doesn’t conform to the laws of physics as we currently understand them. One size fits all. And many think even one god is one too many. As the chaplain says, religion takes on a whole new meaning when your job is asking you perhaps to sacrifice your life for others. You need to allow belief to thrive. The military is coming to grips with paganism.

Belief systems aren’t necessarily rational. I’m reminded of this whenever someone comments that, Mormons, say, believe strange things. I think of what Christianity asks of us and realize it’s only a matter of distancing. All religions ask their adherents to accept the unbelievable. To the great frustration of materialistic reductionists, it is human nature to accept a spiritual world. We are conscious beings and we see intention in the world. Apart from the Whitehouse, the universe seems to be filled with intelligence. We may call it different things. The labels may come in foreign languages. Deep down, however, we all know the feeling. We can teach ourselves to ignore or deny it, but believing is as natural as breathing. If the Army allows pagans—and there’s more than just a few—we should open up both our eyes and our minds. Entire worlds await those willing to do so.


Thick Skin

Religion and folklore encapsulate what folk believe. Human beings, despite rationality, are ritualistic creatures. Psychologists have their work cut out trying to explain why we do this or that odd thing, and historians sometimes dig deep into the backstory to find some hint of a tradition’s origins. Although I lived in Edinburgh for over three years, and drove through South Queensferry in the shadow of the great Forth Bridge a number of times, I never heard of the Burryman. In case you haven’t either, here’s a link a friend sent to a brief video about him. In it Andrew Taylor explains the tradition. Each year, going back to South Queensferry’s pagan past, a citizen dresses in a suit of burrs to ensure a good harvest and bring good luck. What’s fascinating here is that burrs are something people generally avoid, although they are an ingenious method of seed dispersal. They stick to clothes, and even skin and can be annoying even singly. Why anyone would submit to an entire outfit of burrs is something only folklore can answer.

Anthropologists are in short supply. Universities don’t like to fund the study of folklore since it doesn’t lead to jobs. The end result is that what we know of many strange traditions is anecdotal. A few years back I got soundly dressed down in an academic setting for referring to a popular publication of Scottish ghost stories. You see, I was writing an article for publication in an academic journal. I wanted to document a story I’d memorized by dint of the fact that a ghost tour guide would stand beneath our window every night in Mylne’s Court and recite his tale. (I traced it back to a potential Ancient Near Eastern origin.) The problem was, no academic would deign to write about such decidedly low brow tripe. In order to find a written source, I had to cite a popular book. Academic reviewers responded with scorn that I would never pass on to an author, speaking as an editor. This was, however, in the old school days.

So, how would we find the backstory to the Burryman? Great Big Story went straight to the source. Andrew Taylor, the incumbent Burryman, tells what he knows of the tradition. You can’t even see the Burryman from high in your ivory tower where pure thought is your only companion. I’ve always been a street academic, though. Growing up blue collar, I find it much more interesting to see what people are doing out here where the professionals don’t tell them how to behave. The pagan past is still alive. We don’t need a wicker man to prove the point. All it takes is a bunch of dried burdock and some very thick skin.


Looking for Light

The one problem with Halloween is that most people suppose that when it’s over we need to wait another year for the scary stuff to come around again. Since we tend to skip from holiday to commercialized holiday, we have a capitalism-induced mindset of Halloween—brief pause for Thanksgiving—Black Friday—Christmas, spending money all along the way. Halloween, however, is a marker that stands near the beginning of half the year. The half with short days and long nights. Traditionally the holiday associated with ghost stories was Christmas, which falls near the shortest day of the year. Once the light starts creeping back, however, we tend to find reason to be optimistic that the chill can’t last forever and light follows darkness just as surely as life ends in death. All of this is prologue to say that a friend recently sent me a story about Irish witches which got me to thinking about origins once again.

The story, a piece called “Witches of Ireland,” by James Slaven, tells a few tales of Hibernian lore involving witches. As I read the article I was thinking about the origin of witches. Some of the phenomena associated with witches parallels that associated with demon possession—contortion, spitting up needles and nails, even levitating. There is a complex of ideas here that revolves around unseen forces that are categorized as evil. We tend to think the Enlightenment opened the door and shed strong sunlight into the closet, but that’s only true for half the year. The other half we’re mostly in the dark.

Pondering origins, I wonder where these associations began. We have no “histories” to tell us whence these ideas arose. Witches and demons both had, in Christianity, associations with the Devil. That connection doesn’t apply in other religions which, I suspect, is where the origin of many tales of witchcraft lie. You see, the Christian god is a jealous fellow—it says so right there in the Good Book—and displays of power over nature that most good monotheists lack will always be suspect. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to our pagan forebears.

Source: www.imagesfrombulgaria.com; perspective- and color-adjusted by Martha Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

Source: http://www.imagesfrombulgaria.com; perspective- and color-adjusted by Martha Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

These are merely nighttime thoughts, written in the dark. Already I begin to see the sun rise as I reluctantly trudge eastward across the island of Manhattan. I welcome the longer days, but somehow I strangely miss the comfort of the longer nights of yesteryear.


New World Witches

MarWitchOne of the most coveted phenomena in the publishing world is the bad review. Controversy sells a book like nothing else. It wasn’t because of the controversy, however, that I read Alex Mar’s Witches of America. Looking back, I wasn’t even sure of what to expect. Witches can mean many things and there is little one can do, beyond reading the blurbs and summaries (and who has time for that?) to know beforehand what a book’s really about. I like books about witches, so I just read it. I soon found myself engrossed in a spiritual memoir. Perhaps even more than books on witches, I’m drawn to women’s experience of religion. Many such accounts have haunted me over the years, but Mar’s story was different than most I’ve read. Women often write of escaping intolerant, priapic religions of a conservative stripe. Mar may be the first account I’ve read of a spiritual seeking becoming part of modern paganism.

The negative reviews largely focus on what they perceive as a false bill of goods. A woman passing herself off as an authentic seeker just to write a book that violates confidences. As a writer, and as someone who knows authors, I was a little taken aback at this. Those who know writers know they’re disruptive personalities. They look at things differently than most other people do. More than that, their experiences are subjective and must be explained in that vein. Some reviewers claim Mar was just wanting to write a book. Writers know that books write the authors. Spiritual experience is notoriously difficult to capture in words. I’ve read plenty of books about modern witchcraft, including the balanced, academic titles everyone commends. Mar was able, however, to explain the lure far better by taking a personal approach.

There are inherent dangers to sharing your innermost experiences. Other people are involved and honest perceptions will sometimes hurt. A writer finds it difficult to hold back. Spiritual experiences are something complex, multilayered, and scandalous. Often I was told, as an undergraduate at a conservative Christian college, that mystical experiences were to be avoided. They are powerful, frightening, and addictive. I can’t say if Mar violated any confidences, but it seems to me that the portraits she paints of witches are complimentary, and generally feel heartfelt. Then again, Christianity has been analyzed seven ways to Sunday, so it may feel like violation if a religion is still largely secretive. Were it not for the negative reviews, I would’ve never guessed that I’d read anything more shocking than the spiritual memoir that offers other ways of looking at what we think we already know. Oh, and did I mention the book was about witches?


Commitment

Marriage is a human institution. As those who invented it, we should be able to define it. Biology may not help here, since animals become mating pairs in many different ways. Besides, we’re selective in our application of science to the question. Not only that, human views of marriage have changed quite a bit over time, and the practice of marriage is still not uniform today. Back in biblical times, for example, polygamy was more or less normal. Marriages were arranged for tactical and economic reasons, and bonding for love had, one can only guess, very little to do with it. It was practical, pragmatic, and of use to the state. Prior to that, if the evidence is to be believed, “marriage” was a communal practice among groups of maybe 150 individuals. The purpose was the same: social harmony and cooperation.

An article on The Wild Hunt has me thinking about this again. (And you thought I was going to be discussing gay marriage, didn’t you?) According to a recent piece by Christina Harrington, handfasting, the marriage among pagan communities, has now been legally recognized in England and Wales. As far as we can tell, again delving back to the Bible, marriage was not considered a religious matter in antiquity. Part of life, it was handled by families who were witnesses to the promises made. Over time, various religious bodies came to give their blessings to people pledged to each other. In fact, for some religions marriage is perhaps the most important sacrament. Once this happened, however, dominant religions became jealous of their right to declare a marriage binding or not. Even as a child I remember a stigma attached to a merely civil wedding. It is, however, the state the declares a marriage binding.

Photo credit: the ShahMai Network (from WikiMedia Commons)

Photo credit: the ShahMai Network (from WikiMedia Commons)

Marriage is a convenient method to sort out tax statuses among genders with earning disparities. A government has no interest in whether a couple marries for love or not. Even gender doesn’t really matter. Can you tick that “married” box on your tax form or not? So it is that recognizing handfasting is likely, on some level, politically expedient. Meanwhile, those who marry for love have the added benefit of being with someone they chose and having a friend at hand. Tax season is upon us. Valentines Day will soon be here. And in some parts of the world the government is catching up with the times and realizing that marriage is what people make it.


Nature of Religion

HerHiddenChAutumn is a moody time of year. Dolorous gray skies hang low one day, and the next a sky of such incredible blue stretches unbroken out into space itself. Nights are definitely longer now; I climb onto the bus in the dark in the morning and get off in the dark in the evening. And thinking about nature’s cycles leads me to thinking about nature religions. Wicca has often been presented as a nature religion, but it is somewhat more complex than that. Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America, by Chas S. Clifton provides a rare academic look at various pagan religions from the inside. Analysts of New Religious Movements have long classified religious witchcraft as a modern religion. Although Gerald Gardener made claims of being initiated into an ancient British coven when he began what was to become Wicca, it is recognized that this claim was unsubstantiated and that Gardener, in true prophetic form, was inventing a new religion.

I’ve read quite a bit about witches over the years, but I’ve always found contemporary paganism somewhat confusing. As Clifton points out, there are many branches of this relatively small religion, and there is no single leader or head of the movement. In fact, various groups, just like Christian groups, seem to splinter fairly easily. Many revival religions exist, also claiming the name pagan. You can join those who worship Egyptian gods or Norse deities. Or those who find nature itself divine. Pantheism, panetheism, or just plain paganism. Religions come in endless varieties. In a world committed to allowing individuals to follow their own religious conscience, there are bound to be varieties of religious experiences.

Clifton offers a brief history of these fairly recent groups. Paganism began to reassert itself only last century. There had been a social stigma with lying outside the territory claimed by church, synagogue or mosque. Many Americans only learned that religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism existed at the very end of the nineteenth century. What most people don’t realize even today is that a large, and increasingly expanding, variety of religious options exist for the seeker. Not all Wiccans see themselves as believers in a nature religion. Not all pagans call themselves Wiccans. Although Clifton makes no claims to an exhaustive tome, which would have to be far larger, he is a helpful guide through many of the groups that have existed over the past decades and some of which continue to this day. By learning about them we learn some basic truths about the very human urge to connect with something larger than ourselves.


Growing Green

It was bound to happen sooner or later. I married into a family of singers, and when we gather at a cabin in the woods, singing breaks out. In the drought-tormented northwest, under an extreme fire ban, there was no campfire, but that doesn’t stop the music. Once campfire songs begin, “Green Grow the Rushes, O,” always appears. I’m no singer, but I spent a couple years as a camp counselor, and many years before that as a youth conference attendee in the United Methodist Church. I know the song by heart. Usually it is now a sign for the adult males to sneak back to the cabin rather than endure the twelve repeating verses. Nevertheless, the question invariably comes up: what do the words mean? We have a couple of lists, here and there, explaining the lyrics, but the fact is the origins and meaning of the carol are obscure. It’s origins appear to be England, but the countdown of twelve verses contain imagery that is Christian, Jewish, and pagan. Over time, many of the verses have, like most oral tradition, undergone corruption. In many respects, it is almost biblical.
While it might be fun to run down all the verses and discuss their potential meaning, that is a task best left to a day when I have my computer working again. With limited internet access and an iPhone from which to post, full-scale exegesis is a daunting task. One aspect of the song, in any case, is clear—it is generally accepted to be a Christian catechetical tool. Repetitive and, especially before adulthood, fun, the song rewards those with strong memories for such obscure phrases as “April rainers,” “symbols at your door,” and “bright shiners,” in the proper order. After the song is over the teaching begins.
I have a book of camp songs from my counseling days, and it suggests a hermeneutic key to the song. My wife studied musicology, and she provided a somewhat more authoritative source. Then, of course, there’s Wikipedia. On some of the verses there is a general consensus, but most are open for debate, with some seeming to point to pagan origins. Tied up with the fact that the song is, in some places, connected with Christmas, this blend of Jewish, pagan, and Christian ideas comes as no surprise. The age and origins of the song are unknown, but it features references to Greek deities, Jewish laws, and Christian miracle stories. Musicologists have had a crack at the song, and surely will examine it again. The strangeness of the lyrics suggest a mystery to explore. Some mysteries are still to be found around the campfires of the north woods on a summer’s night.
  


Pagan Paean

ImaginingPaganPastThe old gods still live. In literature. The modern world with its open spirituality has continued the process of rediscovering ancient deities. Marion Gibson’s Imagining the Pagan Past: Gods and goddesses in literature and history since the Dark Ages offers a glimpse into how British writers since the earliest days have wondered about the gods. Of course, many of those early writers were already Christianized, and treated the old gods as curios that might be placed on an intellectual shelf of bygone days. Some, however, came up with an idea that can still be found, on occasion, among dwellers in the British Isles—the idea that the original British religion was monotheistic. Indeed, some believed that the religion of Noah made its way to Britain, establishing a debased, but yet roughly correct worldview that was only contaminated by Roman polytheism. There are books suggesting, a la Latter-Day Saints, that the lost tribes of Israel found their way to Britain. Joseph of Arimathea planted his staff at Glastonbury, after all. Nothing satisfies like being the chosen people.

Gibson explores both the Celtic gods and the Norse gods. British literature has drawn upon both deity pools to populate a literature with colorful, if sometimes dark, deities. Beyond the literary, many of these gods survived in popular culture throughout the ages. Some of my fondest memories of the UK are driving to prehistoric sites with friends and finding the gods alive and well. As the sun, feeble at best in a British December, sank one afternoon we pulled into Wayland’s Smithy, a neolithic long barrow. I’d never heard of Wayland before. Gibson reveals the story of Wayland, as well as Woden and Thor, as the gods jumble in a Gaimanesque celebration of cultural diversity. Even on hikes to obscure sites the locals often knew the stories of the gods that had once passed this way.

There’s a virtual Sutton Hoo’s trove of information in Gibson’s brief study. At many points I found myself pausing to think, “that’s where that idea came from” as I followed the trajectory of her explorations. Even some of the deities she does not explore found their place in my three short years in the enchanted countryside where pagan Celt met pagan Saxon met pagan Roman, leading to a heady brew from the well-known Diana to Julian the obscure (there is some witchery afoot here). Even that Anglicanism that once circled the globe did not rid itself of this great cloud of witnesses. We keep our deities alive by preserving them in scripture, whether sacred or secular, and we have done so for hundreds of years. And the old gods, in this monochromatic world of science and industry, remind us where the rainbow really originates. Imagining the pagan past is sometimes the most human thing to do.


Take a PAAS

Like so much of life, PAAS Easter Egg coloring kits were the result of an accident. To be more specific, a chemical accident in New Jersey, something which is far from rare. This particular accident, however, had a fortuitous side-effect: the brightly colored (but not radioactive) Easter Egg dye that many of us associate with childhood. Around 1880 Newark druggist William Townley spilled colored dye onto his suit, leading him to individually package holiday colors, according to a story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. That individual packaging allowed for a full set of egg colors to be sold together and the PAAS brand was soon launched.

The idea of coloring Easter Eggs, like so many Christian traditions, likely has pagan roots. Eggs were a sign of new life with the coming of spring in many cultures (although boiling the poor things rather defeats the purpose). Christians adopted the egg as a resurrection symbol—the chick pecking out of its shell was like the resurrected Jesus bursting from the tomb, albeit somewhat less dramatically. Watching a newborn chick hatch is an emotional experience. At the 4-H Fair, standing around the incubator in the chicken tent, you can see wobbly, uncertain, tiny birds tentatively trying to assess this strange new world that is colder and somehow more compelling than life in the shell had ever been. The mighty son of God they’re not, but they are much more like us, looking for answers and taking small steps until they’re more certain of what they face.

DSCN4483

The coloring of eggs has origins lost in antiquity. Nobody’s quite sure why it was done beyond the fact that they look nice. Romans ate eggs as part of their spring celebrations, and Christians came up with a story to explain colored eggs. The legend claims that Mary Magdalene, in trying to convince the emperor of the truth of the resurrection, turned eggs from white (or brown, as they likely were in those days) to red in her open hands. This proof, however, failed to convince the Caesar. What seems certain is that pagans liked coloring eggs so this provided a new source of evangelism to the Christians who assimilated the practice. Like Christmas, the Easter Egg has become a thoroughly cultural symbol—since Easter comes on a Sunday employers aren’t obligated to give the day off, so everyone can celebrate. Children hunt eggs on the White House lawn and we can still expect everyone to be in the office on Monday morning. Resurrection, after all, can only reach so far.


Before Twilight

Despite the summer with its long, languid days, The Telegraph reported on vampires last week. In an article entitled “Polish archaeologists unearth ‘vampire grave,’” Matthew Day narrates how archaeologists have uncovered skeletons buried with their heads—decapitated, obviously—on their legs. This was apparently a not uncommon medieval practice for ensuring that suspected vampires stayed safely in their graves. Interestingly enough, Day comments that the practice mainly began after the Christianization of the pagan cultures that had preceded them. Even pagans, he suggests, ran the risk of being accused of vampirism, a broadly defined threat in the Middle Ages. Of course, the Twilight series had not been written then so that the safe, Mormon cast of vampire was unknown.

Vampires represented a couple of concepts terrifying to people before the scientific revolution: they were a source of draining an individual of some life essence, and they were the problematic undead. The decapitation, in Tim Burton-Sleepy Hollow style, was intended to prevent the vampire from being able to locate its head after death. Unable to find the business end of its vampiristic corpus, the undead might remain just plain dead. Of course, staking works, if the tales of the Highgate vampire, near whose grave I recently stayed while in London, are to be believed.

The belief in vampires, or at least fascination with them, has been very hard to shake. One of the earliest horror films made was Nosferatu, a rip-off of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that was nearly obliterated because of copyright violations. Nosferatu continues to be ranked among the scariest of horror movies, and the Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake is a classic in its own right. The Shadow of the Vampire was an even more recent movie about the filming of the F. W. Murnau original. Among the earliest of the Universal monster movies was Tod Browning’s Dracula, which forever identified the face of Bela Lugosi with the infamous Count. No matter how deeply we bury them, the vampires keep coming back to stalk our nights and nightmares. When future archaeologists uncover the detritus of our civilization, no doubt they will conclude that we too, in a secularized world, feared the undead.

Bela_lugosi_dracula


Ruby Tuesday

If you’re reading this, you survived Cyber Monday. Not that I personally remember the Middle Ages—I have no desire to return to them—but there was a time when nearly every day of the year was known by a saint’s name. Even as an Episcopalian, nominally Protestant, I was surprised just how many red letter days there were. Black letter days seemed special by comparison. Now, however, our days are named by the shopping expectations. Not only do we have Black Friday and Cyber Monday, we have the moveable feasts of “shopping days before Christmas.” And many other holidays participate in this bonanza dedicated to Mammon. Halloween is a major cash-generating holiday and Valentines can be counted on for buying love. St. Patrick’s for buying green with gold. Ironically, all of these were once, at some remote time, holidays decreed by the church. Many of them are even older than that, going back to pagan times, but religious nonetheless.

In a sluggish economy such times are indeed anticipated. Still, I don’t hear of the one percenters suffering during these difficult times. “Let them eat cake,” Marie Antoinette once was supposed to have said. Cakes are celebratory desserts, of course. We make them everyday occurrences with birthdays that should, in theory, keep the river of cash flowing all year long. The great corporate cathedrals require the offerings of the average citizen, and they insist on far more than a tithe. Then the investment firms complain that people don’t think ahead and save their money for retirement. We see many who live long enough to experience want in their declining years. There should be an app for that.

I wonder if there is something much deeper going on. Those who run so fast usually have something from which they wish to hide. There is the story of King Herod who, according to popular reconstruction, tried to buy the favor of his subjects by monumental building. Herod was not a popular king, and he had a reputation for being bloodthirsty when enraged. It is difficult to verify, but the basics of the story still ring true; when his way of running society was threatened he decided to kill the innocents. Such stories, one might hear a pontiff declare, fall within the genre of the folktale, the story told to make a point. What might that point be? Might it not be that each day is itself a gift and that spending money is not the only way to make time sacred? Of course, as long as you’re online, why not just PayPal your way to true happiness?

A techno-log on Cyber Monday.


The Power of Magic

Open-minded academics are somewhat hard to find much of the time. This stands to reason when jobs are already rare and having a reputation for thinking outside the box frequently equals thinking outside the academy. I am always pleased, therefore, to find unconventional works by credentialed authors. I just finished reading Sabina Magliocco”s Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. Magliocco takes head on the dilemma that non-empirically verified experiences sometimes do happen. Of course, Paganism accepts that as a matter of course, and Magliocco notes that many Pagans hold advanced degrees in the sciences and some even have university posts. Experiences have a way of defying the rules. Most of us have had a bizarre coincidence or uncanny occurrence or two transpire in our lives. We are trained, via our scientific worldview, to shake our heads and try to dismiss it. Magliocco pauses to wonder if we’re perhaps being too hasty.

Sabina Magliocco is an anthropologist with a legitimate doctorate and a university post. Witching Culture is largely an analytical study of Paganism, but it also allows for the possibility that experiential knowledge might complement academic knowledge. This remains a debated issue among specialists: who can really know a phenomenon objectively? Many argue that empirical data reveal the truth of the matter, but truth remains a slippery concept. At the opposite debating table sit the smaller coterie that argue that you can’t study magic until you’ve experienced it firsthand. The debate does not divide along even lines and this is reflected in society at large. We accept the utility of science, but many still pray for divine intervention. Specialists in religion fear to take sides—after all, jobs are hard to find and increasingly harder to keep.

Fully aware that the modern Pagan movement is a revival movement following the hiatus of Christendom in Europe, Magliocco nevertheless admits to being a practitioner. Fascinating her readers with first-hand accounts of mystical experiences, she draws back to try to analyze what has just happened. And she tells us so. Years ago, as part of a seminary assignment, I attended an Al-Anon meeting as an observer. I am, however, the adult child of an alcoholic and when the circle came around to me I confessed to being both an observer and a person seeking healing. It was a difficult place to be, so I respect what Sabina Magliocco is offering us here. Anthropologists increasingly doubt the possibility of pure objectivity, and even physicist Werner Heisenberg realized that to observe is to be part of the experiment. And so are we all.


Disputed Parentage

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, Tertullian famously asked. Much, seems to be the rhetorical answer. Today, August 1, is Lammas. It is said to commemorate the wheat harvest and Lammas is taken to be derived from Anglo-Saxon hlaf-mass, or “loaf-mass.” Beneath this apparent Christian celebration is the pagan festival of Lughnasadh. I’ve posted on Lugh before, but holy days are often seasonal, and it is time to consider Lammas again. Lammas is the last of the cross-quarter days that divide the European pagan year. Some communities bake bread to celebrate it, sometimes in the shape of a person (those of you who’ve seen the original Wicker Man know what I mean).

Christianity was born a persecuted religion that grew to be a persecutor. Deeply rooted pre-Christian traditions were eradicated or sublimated in the growth of Christendom. The modern pagan movement may not have an unbroken line of tradition, but it is a tradition that has ancient antecedents. What Christianity could not conquer it assimilated. Much of what became Christianity derived from Judaism. Much of Judaism had its origins in folk religions of ancient Western Asia. In its European context, Christianity adopted the heathen traditions that fit within the pattern of Christian thought. Agricultural celebrations quite frequently matched events in the imperial religion. Or, if no so events existed, new traditions were invented. It is quite plain that that is why we celebrate Christmas in December.

Why is it that Christianity has so vociferously disavowed its lowly parentage? Being a chthonian religion should be no mark of shame. What is wrong with different but equal? Many people fear and despise those who declare themselves pagan, but paganism is a religion like any other, concerned with morality, justice, and living in accord with the power “out there.” So as August wends its way into the calendar, and the earth begins its inevitable tip towards lengthening nights and the cooling of the days, we might do well to consider Lammas. Whether from the Christian angle of Saint Peter in Chains or from the Pagan angle of Lughnasadh, Lammas is a time to eat bread and reflect, two of the most human of activities. And perhaps with thought will come tolerance.


Symbolic Confusion

While on a drive through New England, we were discussing Islam with our daughter. Now I’m no expert on Islam, but I have covered it in a few classes. It has had a presence in America for a couple of centuries at least, probably first arriving with slaves from Africa. As we drove into Springfield, Massachusetts, I saw four slender towers rising into the sky off the highway and said, “Look, it’s a mosque,” supposing the towers to be minarets. When we drew closer, it was clear that these were really just the decorated finials of a quite secular bridge. Embarrassed at my mistake, my family was kind enough to console me with the suggestion that the four towers from that angle did look like the accoutrements of a mosque. (Earlier in the day I had seen my first Sikh temple in Connecticut, so the mistake might be at least slightly justified.) My wife mentioned how misidentified symbolism could be confusing. This spurred me to consider how symbolism frequently becomes a stand-in for reality.

I’ve been reading about witches lately. Like many legendary fears, witches can be interpreted in many ways. They have their origins in the belief that nature may be manipulated by will over a distance and had been feared for the effectiveness of their powerful spells. After the tragic witch-hunts of the Middle Ages ran their horrible course, witches came to be seen as the result of overactive imaginations and rampant superstition. The modern Pagan movement has revitalized the witch in a somewhat safer environment, and has applied various symbols to it. Thor’s hammer, the ankh, and the pentacle are considered the symbols of modern witches by various covens and practitioners. While passing by a department store on East 43rd Street, I noticed apparel decorated with pentacles—the symbolism adopted by some witches.

This reminded me of a fracas that erupted some years back when a fashion designer incorporated the ornate letters of the Arabic script into the design of a sleek dress that left less to the imagination than a traditional burka. The designer expressed surprise when Muslims objected to words from the Quran being used to decorate immodestly covered women’s bodies. In both these scenarios symbolism has demonstrated its power for being what philosophers call the Ding an sich, the thing itself. Symbols are often that way, bridging as they do the worlds of religious thought and secular existence. I wonder how much we as a society would gain from letting bridges be symbols that participate in the reality they represent.