Thursday, May 14, 2015

Interfaith Celebration of National Day of Prayer

Much has been said about the National Prayer Breakfast that takes place in Washington, D.C. each May, critical that it is intended to foster a “Christian nation,” which the United States decidedly is not.

For the past 16 years my own local interfaith group, Marin Interfaith Council, has produced an Interfaith Prayer Breakfast.  I’ve described some past breakfasts here: 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2014.  Generally speaking, these local breakfasts have been diverse, tolerant, and minimally Abrahamic-centric

Featuring three religious leaders, each presenting on the same theme, these annual events have taught me much, particularly in the way of the nuances of particular denominations.  We’ve had several kinds of Buddhist speakers, many, many iterations of Christian religious thought, representatives of at least three if not four kinds of Judaism, a couple of Muslims, Bahai, Latter Day Saints, and, in 2011, Gardnerian Witch Don Frew was one of the three speakers. 

With the exception of the year Don spoke, it wasn’t until last year that I was ever able to be more than the sole Pagan presence.  I humorously refer to myself as the “token Pagan.”  Last year we were three: Don Frew, Kemetic Matt Whealton, and myself (a Witch at Large).

* * * * *

As near as I could tell, the theme for this year’s speakers to address were oppression and suffering, prayer and meditation.

Zahra Billoo,[1] J.D., Executive Director of the SF Bay Area Council on American-Islamic Relations[2] who is also a civil rights attorney, spoke first.  She explained that prayer in Islam in personal and ritualistic, and can be done alone or in a congregation.

She spoke of two kinds of prayer, one being petitionary the other being an act of worship.  She stated that the sole purpose of Islam is to worship.  Muslims pray five times each day.  She also explained that prayer requires cleanliness of clothes and person, which is why one can observe worshippers washing before entering the mosque and beginning their prayer.  God is the center, and all other things must fit in.

* * * * *

Dr. Johnathan D. Logan, Sr., Pastor of Cornerstone Community Church of God in Christ (Pentecostal) in Sausalito, California, advised us to “Look through the eyes of another” so that you can “fine-tune who you are.”  He said that “prayer is essential” and that we should[3] develop a “prayerful lifestyle”

He described the expression of prayer in his congregation as involving tingling and dancing feet, and being accompanied by a Hammond organ.  As a Pagan from two ecstatic traditions, I can really get behind this form of spiritual expression.  I like dancing and sweating our worship.  This lack of decorum and reliance on a much freer form of expression appeals to my heretic heart.

Dr. Logan also said that praying is two-way communication -- something happens and we get “God’s feedback.”  I can appreciate this perspective, except for the monotheistic assumption.  In my own experience, sometimes I learn from Brigit, and others times I learn from Kali Ma.  Or if not “learn,” at least sense their presence and feel their blessings.

Using the acronym made from the name of the book of ACTS in the New Testament, the speaker explained prayer thus:  Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication (intercession).

He explained that prayers in Pentecostal Protestant practice are used for (a) asking favor, (2) adoration, (3) recitation of sins, (4) asking forgiveness, and (5) interceding on behalf of others.  Prayer can bring one a sense of calm and a sense of peace.

Again, speaking from my Pagan perspective, I don’t hold much with the concept of sin and redemption when it comes to an other-than-human agent.  For me, forgiveness, redressing wrongs committed against another, and restoration of healthy relationships are the responsibilities of those who transgressed to those they offended.  I hold forgiveness in high regard, although I find that in reality it’s often a difficult state to achieve.  I feel that forgiveness must be followed by atonement, not in the Christian theological sense, but rather in the sense of reparation for a wrong or injury.

He claimed that (his) God is immutable, in total contrast with my view that “She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches changes.”

* * * * *
Last to speak was Rabbi Susan Leider, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kol Shofar (Conservative) in Tiburon, California, the host community for this breakfast.  She stated that prayer focuses on joy and gratitude, not on suffering and persecution.  A rather refreshing attitude, I must say.  She said that only personal prayers are petitionary, and that community prayers are not.

The “Amidah,” The Standing Prayer, is said aloud three times a day in Jewish tradition.

Blessed are You, Adonai, Shield of Avraham.
Blessed are You, Adonai, Who causes the dead to live.
Blessed are You, Adonai, The Holy One.
Blessed are You, Adonai Who sets Shabbat apart.
Blessed are You, Adonai, Who causes His presence to return to Zion.
Blessed are You, Adonai, Whose name is good, Who is fit to praise.
Blessed are You, Adonai, Who blesses His People Israel with peace.

* * * * *
I want to explain how this report on my interfaith activity differs from past reports.

In interfaith environments, it’s common to encounter what I will call Yahweh-centrism, which of course is an assumption of monotheism, a single creator god.  Welcoming prayers and benedictions at the conclusion of interfaith events generally refer to “the one” in some way.  I remain silent and respectful, but I have to say I don’t really relate to those blessings.  I accept their sanguine intent.  I try to overlook the monotheistic assumption with which they are offered.

But I have to say it does get to me after a while.  After one event a few years ago when this attitude was especially prevalent, I asked one of my Zen colleagues how she, as a non-deist, dealt with it.  Being a mellow Buddhist, she seemed able to just let those assumptions roll off her back.  She suggested I speak to the executive director of the Council. 

I just didn’t feel I wanted to pursue it, at least not at that time, because I suspect that I, as a single, solitary Pagan member, with no “community” (church, synagogue, congregation of some kind) behind me, would more likely than not be viewed as a malcontent.  Which is not to say that my participation in many Council activities hasn’t been both solicited and appreciated; it has.  I do believe my MIC colleagues are generally fond of me as a person.  I believe that are glad I’m involved and that they consider me a peer. 

So instead I backed off a bit from my involvement.  I withdrew from a committee on which I’d served for a few years, the Justice Advocacy Team.  I attended fewer events, and I only contributed my time, energy, and expertise to those events if and when invited to do so.  I didn’t volunteer.

I nearly blew off this most recent Interfaith Prayer Breakfast, mainly because I could see from the list of announced speakers that the program was entirely Abrahamic.  Then it turned out only the week before the event that both of my other Pagan friends who’d attended last year, Don and Matt, were planning to come again this year.  Well, after about 15 years of being the only Pagan in the room, I found this likelihood encouraging.  It fortified my resolve to remain engaged.  Three Pagans in the same gathering where heretofore I’d been the sole presence!

However, at this point as a representative of Paganisms in the interfaith arena I do feel the need to go beyond simply recounting what was presented, and to express my disagreement with some of the presenters’ assumptions.  In past reports I have mentioned things where I feel a resonance, but not where I dissent.  That makes this report different from previous reports.

I don’t seek to dispute anything that’s said in sincerity by practitioners of other religions.  I don’t seek to offer any kind of case that my worldview and practice are superior to or “more right” than theirs.  What I do hope for, though, is some understanding on the part of my Abrahamic colleagues that their assumption of monotheism excludes many of us other religious folks.

[1]   The same evening I saw the last minute of an interview with Ms. Billoo on All In with Chris Hayes.

[2]   Some years ago I sat on an interfaith panel at Napa Valley College with another colleague from CAIR.

[3]   I have a lot of trouble with statements that include the word “should.”  They reflect an attitude that religious professionals somehow have more authority over each person’s choices than we individuals do.  I disagree.  This is one reason I dislike notions like a pastor (shepherd) and his flock.

Friday, April 24, 2015

BNPs, PPPs, & Leadership

Pagan Summit, Bloomington, Indiana, 2001
(Note: Several in this photo have crossed over since this was taken, and most are not published authors.)

Ever since I’ve been on a Pagan path I’ve heard of BNPs.  The acronym was told to me to indicated Big Name Pagans.   Over time, as more people found their way to one Pagan path or another, or began to create their own paths more specific to their particular worldviews, the term BNP took on a negative connotation.  I started to hear it explained as Big-Nosed Pagans.

Most of those referred to as BNPs had published a book or several and were known for that.  Of course, when I was coming up, there were few books, and those there were tended to be elementary.  They lacked depth, refinement, and nuance.  Today, thankfully, creative Pagans have explored Paganisms in much greater depth.  They’ve done academic and historical research, as well as incorporating anecdotal evidence for their theories – good ol’ UPGs.  Practitioners of reconstructed traditions of many kinds have explored the traditions they’re reviving, and thereby have advanced this learning tremendously.  As well, walkers on more personal Pagan paths, including “hard polytheists,” have contributed to our growing body of resources.

I’ve encountered plenty of disdain in various Pagan social contexts of what the disdainers called BNPs.  Overall, I think this is unfair.  Yes, there are well-known Pagan authors on the broomstick circuit who expect a degree of deference, who require that their luggage be carried and other assistance rendered.  However, not all behave that way.  And in some cases, as with older or frailer authors or those who may be traveling with small children, such accommodations are justified.

I see many other Pagans who aren’t necessarily authors with a body of published books, although often they contribute to anthologies, to published (in the sense of printed matter) discussions and online fora, and who otherwise contribute to the understanding of our communities among the general public.  They may be known, but not necessarily as authors.  After all, leadership takes many forms.

We Pagans also have poets, sculptors, painters, dancers, musicians, song-writers, ritualists, and other artists who might, by the common understanding of the term BNP, be deserving of the appellation.[1]

There are also many other Pagans who’ve taken on leadership roles.  Some organize festivals, or they may take on the big task of creating the meal plans and arranging for  cooking, feeding, and cleanup; or do the accounting a festival requires; or do all the advertising and promotional work; or book the flights for presenters; or fetch guests from the local airport; or one of the many other roles necessary to make a festival happen.  Some may be leaders while others would more accurately be considered volunteers.  In whatever capacity they work, they are helping to create Pagan culture.

Another kind of Pagan leader may be someone who’s done substantial work in the context of interfaith activities, or is a Pagan scholar.

More recently, I offer as an example one individual, John Halstead, who solicited involvement from Pagans of all stripes who, with his facilitation, created a Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.  This is not a Pagan who has a bunch of books to promote and workshops to lead (that I know of).  Surely this action can be seen as one of assuming leadership.

For them, and others who’ve taken on leadership roles, I propose a new term:  PPPs, or Publicly Prominent Pagans.  How do you like it?

[1]   Check back later for more on Pagan artists, writers, and musicians as agents of cultural change.

Friday, March 06, 2015

AAR Annual Meeting - V

November 2014
San Diego, CA

Day Three:  Sunday

Passed on these alluring sessions:

   Religion and Roots of Climate Change Skepticism – not a problem amongst any Pagans I’m aware of.  This panel was comprised of “a Christian evangelical climate scientist; a professor of modern Jewish philosophy and rabbinical thought; an historian of science specializing in debates about climate change; and an evangelical leader in the ‘creation care’ movement.

   Religion and Politics Section: “Contraception, Corporations, and Conscience: Evolving Appeals to Religions Liberty in the Context of U.S. Health Care.”  Again, this session was, as one might expect, Abrahamic-centric.  One paper in particular seemed worth hearing: Shannon Dunn on “The End of Religious Liberty? Discriminatory Laws, Religious Rhetoric, and Efforts to Shape the Body Politic.” 

   Critical Approaches to Hip-Hop and Religion Group:  Keepin’ it Real’ to ‘Keepin’ it Right’: Hip-Hop, Representation, and Epistemology.”  Talks included:

o   “’This Dark Diction, Has Become America’s Addiction': Religion, Race, and Hip-Hop in a Neo-Liberal Age”;
o   “Black, White, or Blue? The Indigo Children, Hip Hop, and the Interrogating Assumptions about the Race and Aims of ‘New Agers.’”;
o   “More Than Human: Bataille, Kanye, Eminem, and the Monstrous Quality of the Sacred”;
o   “Appropriation and Appreciation: Hip Hop as a Critical Category in the Study of Indigenous Religious Traditions with Special Attention Paid to Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation.”

I’m always curious about how our Pagan religions intersect with, and are impacted and informed by, contemporary culture.  In addition, I’m currently engaged in a mentoring/initiatory relationship with a young poet who is also a hip-hop artist.

   Contemporary Pagan Studies Group, Gay Men and Religion Group, Lesbian-Feminist Issues in Religion Group, Men, Masculinities, and Religion Group, and Religious Conversation Group: “Evolving or Born This Way: Conversion and Identity.”

*     Hinduism Group and Law, Religion, and Culture Group: “The Politics of Religious Sentiment: Religion and the Indian Public in the Light of the Doniger/Penguin Affair.”  Surely a session for those engaged in religion, politics, and a free press. See comments about Jeffrey Kripal in the Wildcard Session comments here.

   Public Understanding of Religion Committee: “The Doniger Affair: Censorship, Self-Censorship, and the Role of the Academy in the Public Understanding of Religion.”  Because (i) I’m devoted to a Hindu goddess and find that Hindu practice has informed my personal Pagan practice; (ii) a friend was moderating what could have been a contentious debate; (iii) I have read some of Doniger’s work and heard her speak; (iv) I have friends and colleagues in the American Hindu community; (v) I have friends and colleagues on both sides of this issue; and (vi) this impinges on the interfaith movement and interfaith relations, I had thought this was the session I’d be attending in this time slot….  However, I went to:

Contemporary Pagan Studies Group: “New Paganism(s) around the Globe.”   Now we’re cookin’.

Daniela Cordovil: “The Cult of Afro-Brazilian and Indigenous Gods in Brazilian Wicca: Symbols and Practices.”  Since 2003 when I visited Brazil III Annual Witches Meeting (III EAB - Encontro Anual De Bruxos) in São Paulo, as a guest of Abrawicca (report here), I’ve taken a special interest in Brazilian expressions of Neo-Pagan spirituality, Wicca in particular.  I’d left my notebook in our hotel room when I picked up my companion’s tote, with her permission, I share some of Gwendolyn Reece’s notes. 

According to her notes, Wicca first arose in Brazil in the 1980s, with traditions beginning to manifest in the 1990s, followed by the formation of civil associations such as Abrawicca, the Brazilian Association of Witches (Associa"o Brasileira da Arte e Filosofia da Religi"o Wicca).  (This is where I come in.)  Daniela’s presentation primarily concerned Brazilian Dianic.

The Brazilian Dianic Tradition…organizes two annual meetings… In March…[they] honor the indigenous goddess Cy and in July they honor the Afro-Brazilian (Yorùbá Orisha) goddess Oshun (in Brazil, Ochún or Oxúm).

To me, it is remarkable that these Brazilian Witches are reclaiming their indigenous goddesses and worshipping them in a Wiccan format.  They held workshops discussing such goddesses as Cy (“Mother”), Anhanga, Ceucy, Matinta Pereira, Saci, Curupira, who evidently are no longer worshipped in Brazil except by Witches and possibly other Neo-Pagans.

They performed a ritual circle dance in honor of Coracy, and had an altar honoring Anangha, a god connected with waters, trees, and some animals.  “It was a Wiccan way to connect to Anhanga [and has] nothing that has to do with indigenous patterns.

“At an esbat (esbath) honoring Cy, the goddess’s body at the center of the circle dance is made of nuts, fruits, and legumes.”

They also fashion clay sculptures of Pachamama and leave them in the water.

“They invited a Tembe Indian to talk about Tembe culture, since ‘none of the participants other than the speaker had ever been in an indigenous culture.’”

They also created “an oracle inspired in indigenous symbols – made with indigenous signs.”

Gatherings of BBB (“Brazilian Witches in Brasilia,” the nation’s capitol) take place in July at a private communal farm owned by the high priestess of Brazilian Dianic Tradition, Mavesper Cy Ceridwen.  Almost ten members live there, with about 100 coming for the festivals.  They celebrate in Templo da Deusa (The Goddess Temple).

When Daniela showed her slides, I exclaimed sotto voce, “Oh, that’s Mavesper,” but she heard me, and I think she grew more relaxed and felt more welcome from that point.  It was exciting for me to see my Brazilian friends appear in this study.

Honoring Oshum, the gathering featured:

*     Workshops to earn how to consult the Ifá conch shells;
*     Workshop about myths and histories of Orishas, adapting to Wiccan language, such as linking to Wiccan element constructions;
   Workshop about traditional female societies in Africa – the Geledes Society

Interestingly, the people who were leading some of these workshops had actually been initiated into Candomblé, but left and became Wiccan and have brought some of the traditions and practices from Candomblé.  This is a point of conflict with practitioners of Candomblé since they are using and teaching rites from Candomblé to Wiccans.
They performed an esbath in Honor to Oshum featuring her main symbol of the mirror, and in which they included belly dance along with contemporary music and ritual.  They concluded with the sharing of Omolocum, traditional food prepared to Oshum, eaten with hands as in Afro-Carribean religion.

It would seem that Brazilian Wicca is about as syncretic as a religion can be, rich and diverse like the cultural milieu from which it arose.

Gwendolyn concludes by saying:

Brazilian Wiccan feels free to bring elements of traditional religions, but the indigenous don’t really practice them anymore.  However, the Afro-Brazilian religious tradition has tension – because of appropriation.

Here is an interesting article written by an American Pagan that I found on, but authorship is unattributed.  However, from the context, it would appear to have been written by someone from Reclaiming in Northern California.

* * *

Shai Feraro: “Is There a Future for Neopaganism in the Holy Land?: Past and Present in the Shaping of a Community-Building Discourse among Israeli Pagans, 1998-2013.”  Again, I rely upon Gwendolyn’s note-taking for this summary.  The speaker is a:

“Jewish born Pagan in Israel.  Paganism in Israel is relatively new phenomenon, … [since] the late 1990s.  The internet is largely responsible for the group.  Israeli Pagan Community – a few hundred.  There are probably a few hundred more that do not participate.  So, in this paper, looking at community-building and organizing.

Generally, at the moment, they are staying in the broom closet because …[Israel] is  a Jewish state, including the extreme Orthodox, and because… anti-witchcraft laws are in effect.  There is great concern that the community is too small and too fragile to be able to come out and be public and call themselves a religion and work for their rights.

There was a festival 2011 [mentioned in The Wild Hunt.  I note that Gwendolyn’s notes mention Rena Kessem; she was one of the organizers of this festival, and someone I’ve been in casual communication with Rena for several years.]

In Israeli society Jewish identity is a highly privileged one and if they claim the Pagan identity, they believe that they will probably lose the privilege of being Jewish and it will probably be replaced by negative connotations, including betraying the memory of those who died in the Holocaust.

Within Israel, you can be nonreligious, religious, or spiritual (which is considered to be non-serious – “Jew Age”).  Religious is considered to be Jewish; there is no place for Pagans.  It doesn’t map.

Part of the problem, also, is that the Ultraorthodox Jews tend to control certain aspects of the government.

There is a community leader who escaped from a Hasidic background and is out of the closet both as a witch and gay man and is encouraging others to come out.

Emphasis on the Burning Times tends to lead to secrecy; there is also the burning of the 300 prophets of Baal led by the Prophet Elijah. 

The question is whether there is any kind of fertile ground for rights in Israel.  Israeli Jews tend to hold onto the general theories that the Canaanites who were wiped out by the Israelites is the triumph of monotheism over idolatry.  So, Israeli Pagans are caught in a horrible bind.  If they follow Wicca or Druidism, they are seen as betraying their Jewishness.  If they reconstruct Canaanism, they are seen as bringing back the evil that the Israelites conquered.

* * *

Unfortunately, the final speaker, Dmitry Galtsin of the Library of Russian Academy of Science in St. Petersburg was unable to present his paper on “The Divine Feminine in the Silver Age of Russian Culture and Beyond,” so moderator Chas Clifton read it.  What follows is from Gwendolyn’s notes:

Sophia became an icon of the silver age.  … Sophia is emergent unity,… the world-soul that is being saved and is that essence.  This is totally Hellenistic Gnosticism.  [Gwendolyn’s interpretation, not specifically articulated in the paper] He hasn’t called it that yet, but his description of Sophia is exactly that.

Mystical contact with female – the Sophia.  ….  She speaks mostly of her love for the philosopher. 

So, there are two images – the philosophical and also, however, the erotic lover.  They tend to be the white lily and the red rose.  Trying to reconcile but they have both sides. 

Rosenov  - Diana and Aphrodite – tries to bring the erotic into the Pagan context.  Mostly looking at the near east.  [I find no reference to Rosenov online and don’t remember any more that was said.}

Praises the Mari,…an ethnic group of Russia that maintained Paganism. 

Metashosky blends Paganism and Christianity.  The quote I really like is basically: “What is the difference between father and mother?  Philosophers don’t know, but children do.  Father will punish; Mother will forgive.”

Check back for my next and final report on AAR 2014 that will include information on “Religious Communitarianism, Utopianism, and the ‘Race Problem’ in Nineteenth Century North America” and “The Hidden, Transgressive and Camouflaged in Popular Religion.”

Friday, February 20, 2015

Hanging with My Peeps at PCon

Don Frew, Macha, Richard Reidy of the Temple of Ra
This year’s PantheaCon nourished me.  I printed out a schedule ahead of time of events on the official schedule, as distinct from the many programs being offered in various suites throughout the weekend, that I wanted to be sure to attend.  I left plenty of space for serendipitous encounters.

I knew I had some responsibilities in the Pagan Scholars’ Den -- I dislike that term – for both Cherry Hill Seminary and the Pagan History Project with which I’m involved.  And I was scheduled to sit on one panel, “Tradition vs. Innovation.”  Beyond those things, I was open to see what arose.

Arrived Thursday evening in order to avoid morning commute traffic and my tendency to retire late and sleep late.  My first dip in the brew was attending a panel called “The Good, the Bad, & the Blogging,” featuring Patheos bloggers.  The varied panel gave a good cross-section bloggers on topics of interest to Pagans.  I was especially happy to make the acquaintance of one blogger whose work I admire and try to read when I can; that would be John Halstead who writes The Allergic Pagan.  Nothing to do with allergies, rather because he has a find mind and writes thought-provoking blogs

For reasons I don’t recall I missed several Friday evening offerings, including concerts by Celia Farran, Ruth Barrett, and Holly Tannen.  I’m a fan of all three women and rarely miss their local appearances.

I don’t usually attend much in the way of rituals, maybe only one to three over the course of a long weekend, meaning I missed “Hekate: Witness and Ally” and “The Rite of Grand Convergence.”  The latter interested me because it was an offering of Black Rose Witchcraft, whom I view as Craft cousins, though I must say the title of the ritual is rather grand.

I spent a good while in the Pagan Scholars suite, where Angela Pearson supplied me with Jameson’s.  I’m not much of a drinker, but I do enjoy an occasional, say annual, alcohol high.  Cole and Allie and I took a break in the parking lot, then went up to Clifford Hartleigh Low’s fantastic Green Fairy Party, where the host himself escorted me to the front of a very long line in the hallway and into the scene of festivity.

And whom should I see as soon as I entered but Erik Davis wearing a little feathered green cap and looking like Robin Hood.  Our paths had last crossed when he talked about ‘weird’ at the Brainwash Café at the same event where my grandson Ian Kappos was reading.  On the infrequent occasions when we meet, we always seem to have plenty of information to exchange, at least from my perspective.

On Saturday morning I missed Brandy Williams’ talk on “Lives of Pagan Teachers”; well, I did manage to get there for the last half hour, but it was all over and the room empty by then.

Unfortunately, the panel on “Tradition vs. Innovation” was scheduled at the same time as one on prison ministry.  I have plenty of experiences to share with regard to the latter, and would have benefitted from talking with others who are doing similar work; however, I haven’t yet mastered the skill of bilocation, so sat on the former panel.

As to “Tradition vs. Innovation,” I hope I conducted myself well and spoke with clarity and conviction.  Some of us panelists did find instances where we reflected and enriched each other’s commentary.  I found this especially heartening when it occurred with younger Pagans like Lou Florez. 

Went to Richard Reidy’s talk, “Ancient Magic for the Modern World – A Kemetic View” and did a spell that seems to be working.  Richard, of the Temple of Ra, always offers well-planned and informative presentations

Babalon Rising: Jack Parsons’ Witchcraft Prophecy.”  I found this talk by Erik Davis   fascinating.  Not only did he tease his threads out to include mention of W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), but even more, he cited my late friend Sequoia as a later manifestation of this current (to mix metaphors).  She would have been thrilled.  Old-time Pagans like Murtagh AnDoile, Elizabeth TigerRose, and Magenta Griffin had plenty to contribute to the follow-up discussion.  Great fun!

Gary Suto joined me for “Katabasis: Descent to the Underworld” a drag show performed by the Circle of Dionysus in the weird-vibed abandoned disco club on site.  This performance involved another spell that I think is working.  We met Erishkigal, Persephone, and even Aphrodite down there in the Underworld.  The amazing original sinnerjee filked the Village People’s “YMCA” around the theme of conversion therapy, the chorus being, “Why am I gay?”

I enjoyed plenty of party-hopping during the evening hours. 

Talked shop about working with inmates within the prison system with Christopher Penczak in the Temple of Witchcraft hospitality suite.

Met with others in the CoG suite concerning attending the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City in October.

Enjoyed socializing in the ADF suite with Sean Harbaugh and others.
Macha, Kristoffer Hughes, Kat Sanborn
Hung with authors in the Llewellyn hospitality suite, for fun conversations with Kristoffer Hughes and Sonja Sadovsky in particular.

Enjoyed hanging with Sisters Krissy Fiction, Shomie D. Goods, Hera Sees Candy, and other sisters both in and out of Sister drag.  I was delighted to find and old/new friend in Sister Lilith of the Valley of the Shadow of Death with whom I share friends and experiences from the 1980s and ‘90s.   We had a reflective talk about Raven Moonshadow at the Pagan Alliance party warmly hosted by JoHanna White.
Sister Krissy, Macha, Sister Hera Sees Candy, Derik Cowan
Blessed with a fine new friend, Jon Drum of ADF, whom I expect to be more involved with Cherry Hill Seminary.

On my last night there I joined hundreds for Orion Foxwood’s “The Flame in the Cauldron: The Awakened Spirit of the Witch.”  It’s been years since I’ve attended any of Orion’s presentations, mainly because they have such long lines and I cannot stand for long periods.  This year, however, I finally accepted the fact that as an older person with some physical limitations, I could go to the front of the line and enter ahead of the main crowd.  What a wonderful talk, concluded with ritual chanting!  Thus began the third spell of the weekend for me, connecting with and reviving the witch blood.

There are many other reports out here in cyberspace on the goings-on at this year’s PantheaCon that focus on the experiences of People of Color.  I did not witness any of the incidents they are talking about. 

Bear in mind, dear reader, that this annual event consists of about 10 or 12 simultaneous official events around the clock and perhaps 2,500 attendees on ten floors.  That doesn’t count the many offerings in various suites during those same limited hours – alas! only 24 in a day. 

I had many more experiences, encountered so many other dear friends, old and new, than I can mention in one blog post.  This is my digest.

This is my personal experience – and this year was wonderful for me.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

AAR Annual Meeting - IV

"The Nightmare" by John Henry Fuseli

  November 2014
San Diego, CA

Day Two:  Saturday Late Afternoon and Evening

For the 4:00 p.m. session I passed on three others of interest.

Indigenous Religious Traditions focused on “Ritual Objects and Materiality in the Study of Native American Traditions.”  Anthropologists have considered the importance of social and historical context while neglecting physicality and materiality in such circumstances as indigenous rituals “tied to particular places and things in irreducible ways.  Panelists spoke on

·      “Maya Persons, Places, & Things: Relational Theory and Maya Blood Offerings to the Ceiba Tree”;
·      “Ayahuasca as ‘Teacher Plant’: An Ethno-Metaphysics of Santo Daime’s Botanical Sacrament”;
·      “Animacy and Agency in Puppets, Masks, and Other Ritual Objects”;
·      La Vara: Divining Bundle of the Highland May Ritual Specialist”; and
·      “The Way of the Mask: The Intersection of Ritual and Value in Highland Guatemalan Religious Dance Masks.” 

Blood offerings, entheogens/psychotropics, puppets (poppets?), masks – just some of the less conventional sacred technologies that we Pagans often employ.

Ritual Studies Group: “Ritual Assembly and the Dynamics of Democracy.”  This panel offered five different ways in which ritual acts and performances reveal and mobilize culture resources and initiate changes to establish new conditions for democratization processes. …[P]eople entering ritual activities establish new conditions and forms of social and political engagement, and … how they are continuously renegotiating social identities.  …[R]ituals significantly impact democratic processes, both in reshaping society and providing the grounds for responding to local and global crises.  Thus ritual is not just the outcome of social construction, but serves as a precondition for the construction and transformation of society.”

As a ritualist myself, I do see ritual as a vehicle of social change (not necessarily with respect to democracy).  The cultures from which these papers were drawn include, among others, Hong Kong, rural Uttar Pradesh, Norway, and Turkey.

Tantric Studies Group: “Out for Blood: Sacrifice, Tantra, and Normative Hinduism.”  “Taking animal sacrifice as the quintessential pubic marker of Shakta Tantra in much of South Asia, this panel examines how historical, regional, practical, and economic contexts have shaped the ways various traditions … relate the theory and practice of blood offerings to mainstream brahmanical Hinduism…case studies detail some of the social effects and rhetorical uses of … sacrifices within Tantra and Shaktism…while particularizing our understanding of how these categories relate to other comparatively peripheral formations including folk and tribal religions.  Taken together, these papers highlight the role of sacrifice as a flashpoint for divergent articulation and valuations of Hinduism’s center and its frontiers.”  [emphasis added]  Could you not change a few words and apply this statement to contemporary Paganism?  Given much discussion of animal sacrifice in the Neo-Pagan world, it would seem we might have something to learn from these traditions.

One paper in particular, “Blood in the Mainstream: Kali Puja and Tantric Orthodox in Early Modern Bengal,” intrigued me because I am a devotee of Ma Kali.  I perform Kali puja at the New Moon at a local store before altar in a temporary temple.  The pujaris (priest/esses) who conduct the ceremonies I attend are trained at Dakshineshwar, and the kirtan singers and musicians are mainly Indian rather than Euro-Americans, though I’ve seen no evidence of blood sacrifice, and suspect that most attendees are vegetarians.

When I ran into Steve Wehmeyer on Friday, he said he’d come to substitute for his wife, Kerry Noonan, to chair a wildcard session that he raved would be my best option among all these tempting sessions.  So that’s where I went.

* * * * *

Wildcard Session:  Contemporary Scholars, Contemporary People, and Belief in Spirits: Folklore, Religion and the Supernatural.”  

We met in a moderate-sized room, and there were folks sitting on the floor and hanging in the doorway.  This panel could easily have filled a larger meeting space.  This, to me, indicates a growing interest in exploring these phenomena, and comparing them with our own personal experiences.  Perhaps ‘religious scholarship meets UPGs (unverified personal gnosis).’

Robert Glenn Howard, from the University of Wisconsin spoke on “Hoarding the Spirit: Discourse Approach to Folklore of the Supernatural.”   He explained that discourse analysis accepts the experience of the spiritual being as real at the level of experience.  The vernacular authority, on the other hand, is “an appeal to trust in what is handed down outside of any formally instituted social formation.”  He cited Don Yoder’s definition of folk religion, that folk religion is separate from but not necessarily in opposition to or replacement of official religion.[1]

As I mentioned above, I am a Kali worshipper, so I was familiar with the next panelist, Jeffrey Kripal , from his controversial book Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna.  I also heard him speak on a panel on North American Hinduism at the AAR in San Francisco in 2011. 

At this session, Dr. Kripal gave something of a fan’s appreciation entitled “Comparativism Unbound: The life and Work of David Hufford.”  It seems that Dr. Hufford has been Dr. Kripal’s mentor for most of his professional life, and from what we saw and heard, this relationship proved beneficial to religious scholarship. 

He described what he calls ‘supernatural assault phenomena,’ also known as ‘sleep paralysis’ or ‘Old Hag Syndrome.’   These phenomena are called by many terms and found throughout the world.  Described as an experience that occurs when one is awake, lying supine, and experiences physical paralysis, fear, the sense that someone is in the room, someone is on one’s chest.  An ‘old hag attack may be accompanied by the sound of footsteps, very soft, wearing no shoes.  This is the source of such phrases as “hag-ridden” and “haggard.” 

Dr. Hufford’s research centered in Newfoundland, where the included his own experience plus cross-cultural subjects.  He “found that these assaults are not associated with any anthropological variable. … People are being perfectly rational when they are reporting them.”[2] 

“Sleep paralysis does not seem to be causal.  It is more like the metaphor: the sun must go down for us to see the stars.  Night is a condition for us to see the stars but they do not cause the stars.” [3] 

David J. Hufford, from Penn State-Hershey and currently working with the Samueli Institute exploring the science of health presented a talk entitled “The Experience-Centered Approach to Spiritual Belief: Understanding the Persistent Enchantment of Modernity” immediately after Dr. Kripal.

Wow, this talk was even more fascinating than the two previous talks!  Gwendolyn took lots of notes, not especially easy for this reader to interpret, because we all have our own shorthands in note-taking.  Rather than incorporating her notes here, I’ll simply note a couple of things that impressed me most. 

Dr. Hufford cited Francisco Goya’s 1799 etching called “The Sleep of Reason Produces
Francisco Goya "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters"
Monsters,” which I include here because, as they say, “
a picture is worth a thousand words.”

He has also published what appears to be a fascinating study, The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions.   I recommended Hubbard’s book to my friend Megory Anderson, thinking it might prove germane to her work with the dying.  .  Further, Dr. Hufford's work at the Samueli Institute benefits veterans who return from the front with hidden injuries.

Our own Sabina Magglioco provided the response to the panelists, wearing her super-cool magical coat. 

* * * * *
Pagan Studies Dinner

Finally, on Saturday evening the Pagan scholars and other Pagans in attendance met for a dinner filled with lively chat and warm camaraderie.  This dinner is one of the few opportunities for all of us to see one another, since the Annual Meeting itself is vast and varied, and chances of our crossing paths are limited.

[1]   Thanks to Gwendolyn Reece for sharing some of her notes on these sessions.
[2]    Gwendolyn Reece.
[3]    Gwendolyn Reece.