Tuesday, March 31, 2020


Ma’at, Themis, Justitia

Recently I was invited to sit on a panel on the theme of Justice – what our faith tradition teaches about Justice at the Berkeley Buddhist Temple.  The panel convened after a short Buddhist service.

Each panelist will have 10 minutes to discuss his or her thoughts on the topic from the standpoint of his or her religion or spiritual outlook.  The subject can be approached from any angle desired (personal experience, professional experience, doctrine, personal philosophy, whatever).  There will then be a short question and answer period,

Well frankly, I was kinda stumped.  I know what Justice is and I think I have a strong sense of Justice; however, I don’t know how these sentiments came about, except, I guess, through my Christian parents.  I don’t know of any specific Pagan teachings addressing Justice.

The word "justice" appears in many of the United States' most important documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Pledge of Allegiance.  However, its precise definition is still a topic of debate for philosophers, theologians, and legislators.

In my process of preparing for the panel, my friend Gus DiZerega was kind enough to provide me with a copy of a talk he gave at the Claremont Conference on Current Pagan Studies entitled “Rethinking Social Justice in Accordance with Pagan Values” in 2016.  Although that helped me in my thinking about this and I’m grateful for Gus’ generosity, I didn’t end up drawing from it.

In addition, I’ve been learning about restorative justice because of my work as a volunteer with the Wiccan circle at San Quentin State Prison, where the Insight Prison Project was born.  Restorative justice:

… seeks to heal the harm caused by crime.  Instead of focusing on retribution, it focuses on rehabilitation. At its core, it is a process that offers both victims and those who caused harm an opportunity to seek answers and accountability to begin to repair the damage caused by crime.

IPP’s core program is:

… the 18-month long Victim/Offender Education Group (VOEG), which includes a curriculum that was designed by licensed mental health therapists in collaboration with survivors of violent crimes and people incarcerated for previously violent behavior. 

Further, I learned a lot from some deeply moving episodes of an excellent television series on CNN called The Redemption Project with Van Jones.  In fact, one of my Marin Interfaith Council colleagues, an interfaith minister, appeared in one episode where she served as the support person for the offender.

Often when I’m stumped about an issue, I turn to various peoples’ goddesses and stories about them.  Pagans commonly learn from the mythology and folklore of our ancestors.  That is how I arrived at the decision to chose three goddesses from three different ancient cultures.


I began with Ma’at.  Ma’at was, and is, the personification of the cosmic order and a representation of the stability of the universe.  Ma’at first appears during the period known as the Old Kingdom (c. 2613 - 2181 BCE) but no doubt existed in some form earlier.  She represents truth, justice, balance, and morality.  She is shown winged and adorned with an ostrich feather

The Spirit of Ma’at presided over Egyptian law courts.  Her priest had a dual role, serving as both a priest and working directly in the law courts and justice system.  He wore the feather of Ma’at in court proceedings, while all other court officials wore small golden images of the goddess as a sign of their judicial authority.  Priests drew the Feather of Ma’at on their tongues with green dye, so that the words they spoke were truth, as a symbol that their judgment would be balanced and fair.  Depictions of Ma’at show her wearing a feather on her head.

At death, on her divine scales Ma’at weighs the heart of the deceased against her feather of truth.  In an entertainment context rather than a religious one. Ma’at’s scales with the feather are shown in the television production of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Contemporary Pagans who practice Egyptian or Kemetic religious traditions, whether they are strict reconstructionists or they syncretize Egyptian thought, mythos, deities into their practices, worship Ma’at, among others.  Some contemporaries propound the “42 Ideals of Ma’at.”


From ancient Greece, the culture of which permeates Western culture, I chose Themis.  The personification of abstract concepts is characteristic of the Greeks.  Thus, Themis first appears as a divine personage in Hesiod's Theogony.  Hesiod described the forces of the universe as cosmic divinities.  Titled the Lady of Good Counsel, Themis personifies divine order, fairness, law, natural law, and custom.  Her symbols are the Scales of Justice, tools used to remain balanced and pragmatic.  Themis means "divine law" rather than human ordinance.  She was the organizer of the “communal affairs of humans, particularly assemblies.
Themis in Australia

The ability of the goddess Themis to foresee the future enabled her to become one of the Oracles of Delphi, which in turn led to her establishment as the goddess of divine justice.

Themis presided over the proper relation between man and woman, the basis of the rightly ordered family (the family was seen as the pillar of the deme, or connected neighborhood), and judges were often referred to as “themistopóloi” (the servants of Themis).  Such was also the basis for order upon Olympus, where even Hera addressed her as “Lady Themis.”

For Hesiod, Justice is at the center of religious and moral life who, independently of Zeus, is the embodiment of divine will.  Hesiod portrayed temporal justice, Dike, as the daughter of Zeus and Themis.  Dike executed the law of judgments and sentencing

In general, Themis had three subsistences; goddess of natural order, meaning the seasonal and never-ceasing rotation of time; goddess of moral order; and goddess of prophecy,

Some classical representations of Themis showed her holding a sword, believed to represent her ability to cut fact from fiction; to her there was no middle ground.
Lady Justice in Czech Republic

Justitia, or Iustitia, was the Roman goddess of justice.  She is often referred to in modern times as Lady Justice.  The emperor Augustus, (27 BCE – CE 14) introduced her, and his successor Tiberius established a Temple of Iustitia in Rome.  She became a symbol for the virtue of justice with which every emperor wished to associate his regime.  Later, the emperor Vespasian (9-79 CE) minted coins with the image of the goddess seated on a throne, and many emperors after him used the image of the goddess to proclaim themselves protectors of justice

Justitia has become a symbol of Justice in western culture.  Justitia, in her more modern form as Lady Justice, has appeared in numerous forms at different times throughout the entirety of Western history since classical antiquity.

She is usually depicted holding a sword, just as Themis was in some images, representing authority and conveying the idea that justice can be swift and final.  In some interpretations the sword she holds represents punishment.  As do her predecessors Ma’at and Themis, Lady Justice also carries a scales.  

Since the 16th century, Lady Justice has often been depicted wearing a blindfold. The blindfold, symbolizing objectivity, a lack of prejudice demanded by justice, that justice is impartial and should be applied without regard to wealth, power, or other status.

Many sculptures, such as the one atop the Old Bailey courthouse in London, leave out the blindfold altogether.  Another variation, which can be seen at the Shelby County Courthouse in Memphis, Tennessee, depicts a blindfolded Lady Justice as a human scale, weighing competing claims in each hand.

Contemporary Iustitia in Ottawa
Allegoria della Guistitia

 Scales of Justice

As you can see, one thing that all of these Pagan representations of the concept of justice include is scales.  The scales of justice are a familiar symbol used in many Western presentations of modern law; they represent the weighing of two sides of an argument and the equal, unbiased administration of the law, and the scales lack a foundation in order to signify that evidence should stand on its own.  They symbolize the idea of the fair distribution of law, with no influence of bias, privilege or corruption. 

Lady Justice is most often depicted with a set of scales typically suspended from one hand, upon which she measures the strengths of a case’s support and opposition.

* * * * *

Contemporary Lady Justice
As mentioned above, Pagans commonly learn from the mythology and folklore of our ancestors, and, to a lesser extent, from anthropology and archeology, art, music, dance, and cuisine.  We may draw from many times and cultures, from personal experience and philosophy, from teachings and study.  Personal experience may include direct communication with particular divine entity(ies).  I don’t see this as choosing from a smorgasbord of ancient and contemporary; rather, as are all religions, Pagan religions are syncretic. 

In general, Pagans are not doctrinaire. We are orthopractic rather than orthodox; we share our rituals together, be they scripted or spontaneous, yet each participant may gain insight and understandings, literal belief or healthy skepticism, in different ways.  Further, each participant may have a different belief about what they’re doing, whether literal or metaphorical.

Our ongoing influence is attested by the longevity of our deities and the concepts they represent.  The desks of many attorneys hold a scales; courthouses and other government buildings are warded by statues of Lady Justice or Themis, paintings of these goddesses abound throughout the world, from Brazil to Scandinavia, and beyond.  As we are fond of saying, we practice a “living religion.”

© 2020 Aline O'Brien

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

One Witch's PantheaCons

PantheaCon 2013 "Crones"
rear l-r: Magenta Griffin, Rachael Watcher, Macha NightMare, Selena Fox,
Vivianne Crowley, Margot Adler; front Anna Korn, Glenn Turner
I’m annoyed that the comments for the post on The Wild Hunt are closed only two days after its publication.  I had stuff to say.  I’ve been to many a Pcon, and have been there in various capacities, both inside organizing as a volunteer and as a presenter.  Thus, I’ll share what I had wanted to say, and more, on this blog.

The first year, in downtown San Jose, not near the airport, I helped run the Green Room and had a role in Reclaiming’s Brigit ritual there.  

Over the years, I’ve had panels that have had people sitting in the aisles and spilling out the doorway.  (Pagan Clergy, Death & Dying, et al.)  I’ve been a functionary in rituals others created and presented some of my own. (big Brigit ritual written by Laurel Olson Mendez, 19 priestesses; “Witchual: A Spell”; Oracles from the LivingTarot – really screwed up on that one; et al.)

The year 2000 CE saw the first performance of three of Goddesses Alive! using Lauren Raine’s gorgeous goddess masks, in celebration of the late Abby Willowroot’s Goddess 2000 project, at the old Jack Tar Hotel in San Francisco.  This ritual, in a much more polished form, was performed again that December at New College of California (RIP), and had its final performance at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City in 2015 — one of the great honors of my life.  

One year when it was at the Oakland Convention Center I headed the volunteers.  It was not a good experience for me, sorry to say, since my efforts were stymied by arbitrary interference, to the point where I would never again volunteer there.

Cherry Hill Seminary presented symposia the day before the Con began three or four years, thanks to PantheaCon's Glenn Turner’s offering us rooms in which to hold them.  One year we even managed a CHS hospitality suite shared with the House of Danu.

Our Predecessors
In 2008, we did a Besom Brigade -- thank you, Steven Posch -- in the DoubleTree lobby.  

My “Growing Pagan Elders” study was rejected three years in a row, for reasons unknown.  I had originally conducted this study for presentation at the Claremont Conference on Current Pagan Studies, and I’ve been paid to present it elsewhere.  It was a lot of work and was about something we as Pagans were facing as our movement matured.  I got over 700 responses on my open-ended survey on Survey Monkey.  By “open-ended” I mean I left lots of space for narrative,

Finally, after three years, I was given the 9 am Monday time slot, when everyone has left or is preparing to do so.  So who was sitting in my very unsexy presentation that year?  Margot Adler, Selena Fox, Ivo Dominguez, Michael Smith, Amber and Azrael K, and other leaders, so I guess it was interesting enough for them.  Hmm, do I sound bitter about that?  

After that I quit submitting proposals, except for sitting on a panel now and then, and just attended so I could visit old, seldom seen friends, attend a ritual or presentation as they interested me and if they were led by a friend – in which case I knew they’d be good.

Some years I was away at another Pagan gathering the same weekend.  Last year I didn’t go because of the furor and dysfunction.  

This year I was given the 7 pm Friday evening time slot, a time when many had not yet arrived, for another unsexy talk on creating Pagan infrastructure called “Have Paganisms Gone Mainstream? The Spiritual Meets the Secular.”  To my surprise, we had a full house, a double room that was one full room and about 1/3 of the spill-out room, maybe 50 people.  Of course, I forgot to ask someone to take photos and forgot to pass around a sign-up sheet.  Discussion was so lively that Con staff had to throw us out of the room for the next talk, and I got lots and lots of positive feedback throughout the rest of the Con.  Very satisfying.

I do applaud and appreciate Glenn for creating these opportunities to create Pagan culture.  'Back in the day' that creation and cross-fertilization was done in the context of outdoor camping festivals, especially in the South and Midwest.  My theory about why there were so few on the West Coast was that we are already liberal and accepting and don’t need to sneak off for private meetings where we weren’t jeopardized by the threat of outing.  PantheaCon has played a major role in the cross fertilization and evolution of contemporary American Pagan culture.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

AAR 2017-IV (2017)

Steineset Witchcraft Memorial in Vardø, Finnmark, Norway

Contemporary Pagan Studies Unit

Pagan Intersections with Social and Cultural Systems.  These papers investigate the ways in which Pagan belief and practices intersect with wider aspects of culture and experience and the ways in which Pagans themselves interact with services and institutions.  Topics include the impacts of being Pagan on health and wellbeing and the ability to see appropriate care and diagnosis, the impacts of Pagan leadership in environmental activism, and how a pilgrimage site is used for educational purposes.

«    Kimberly KirnerSeeking Healing and Support:  Mental and Physical Health Challenges in Pagan Communities.  Pagans are known for high rate of small-group and solitary practice, often facilitated at people’s homes or public spaces such as national forests and parks.  How does this impact how Pagans with mental and physical health challenges experience their communities? How does Pagan community color their experience of support in seeking care and treatment for their health challenges?  The 2012 Pagan Health Survey asked United States Pagans about their beliefs, practices, and experiences in healing (N+1811).  76% of respondents reported a period in their lives of significant mental distress or disorder (with 54% having experienced depression, 60% anxiety or panic, and 29% PTSD); 49% of respondents reported a chronic physical illness.  This paper explores how Pagans with such health challenges experience their religious community, including both support and discrimination, as well as how multiple stigmas (religious minority combined with frequently stigmatized health challenges) impacts Pagans’ well-being.

«    Garrett SadlerSeeking Healing and Support:  Mental and Physical Health Challenges in Pagan Communities.   

«    Jeffrey AlbaughA Phenomenological Exploration of Theophany and Metanoia in Contemporary Paganisms.  This descriptive phenomenological inquiry explores invariant structures of meaning in the lived experiences of theophany and metanoia in individuals identifying as Contemporary Pagans in the United States.  Methods of inquiry included open-ended questions to collect descriptions of numinous experiences.  Analysis utilizes the descriptive phenomenological method developed by Amedeo P. Giorgi, and compares the resulting invariant meanings with the current research on Contemporary Pagan belief and practice.  Analysis resulted in a predictable map of the psychic experience of encountering the numinous that mirrors the four basic tropes of archetypal psychology, personifying, of imagining things; pathologizing, or falling apart; psychologizing, or seeing through; and dehumanizing, or soul making.
* * * * *

I was amazed, pleasantly so, to learn of this spectacular memorial installation in Norway, of all places.  Who knew there were Witch burnings in Norway?  I didn’t.  From the various photos online, it appears that the visitor could be drawn in to the experience of events.  I think you can tell a lot from the photos included here.

Burning Chair

Chair at Nighttime

Distant View

It's Right Out There Along the Cliff

Another View Showing Waves

«    Jone Salomonsen and Sarah M PikePresence and Absence at the Steilneset Witchcraft Memorial. Where do we find memorials to commemorate early modern witch hunts as a crime, and to more the many thousands who were tortured and killed as heretics in Europe (and North America)?  How does a state incorporate its crime against those deemed and burned as devilish others into its memorial landscape?  According to contemporary memory studies, the time of the monument is passé.  Rather than embodying memory, the monument tends to displace it altogether, supplanting a community’s possible memory work with its own material form.  The alternative to “monument” is the “memorial,” which is defined as a counter-monument, a built structure in which the artist has attempted a performative piece that may initiate a dynamic relationship between artist, work and viewer.  A memorial, therefore, is an egalitarian conception that attempts not only to commemorate the historical impulse that led to the abuse, the kill, the event “itself,” but to facilitate an enactment in which the hierarchical relationships between the object and its audience is breaking down.  The enactment in which the hierarchical relationship between the object and its audience is breaking down.  The paper will present and discuss the one case in which a local municipality recognized its obligation to remember the early modern witch burnings in its own town and who called on world-renowned artists to design a worthy site.  Steineset Witchcraft Memorial in Vardø, Finnmark, in northern Norway, is also a unique sample of an embodiment of the conceptual intent of a ‘memorial.’  The actual memorial is a 2011 co-production by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and the French-American installation artists Louise Bourgeois to commemorate 77 women and 14 men who were burned at the stake between 1620 and 1692 in this sparsely populated county (of 3000 inhabitants at the time in Northern Norway.
Another View

The Long Walk to the Fire
Long Walk to Fire Chair


Friday, June 15, 2018

AAR Annual Meeting-III (2017)


Contemporary Pagan Studies and Religion and Migration Unit and Religion and Popular Culture Unit and Religion, Film, and Visual Culture Unit and Religion, Media, and Culture Unit.

American Gods. I was unable to attend this intriguing roundtable discussion inspired by Neil Gaiman’s novel, but I wanted Pagans to know that it took place.

Contemporary Pagan Studies Unit

Magic in the Time of the Tower: Witchcraft, Activism, and Political Resistance.  This panel explores various aspects of political activism within the contemporary pagan and witchcraft communities.  Topics and issues discussed will include mass protests organized across social media, controversy among pagan and witchcraft traditions regarding the appropriate use of magic and spellcraft in political contexts; the influence of popular media texts upon the lexicon and imagery of contemporary pagan activism; and the presence of witchcraft culture in the current political climate.

«    Peg Aloi“We Are the Weirdos, Mister!”: The Re-emergence of W.I.T.C.H. and a New Generation of Media Witches.   The re-emergence of the late 1960s radical feminist group W.I.T.C.H. (The Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) has been a dramatic and attention-getting presence in the current climate of political activism.  This paper will explore the cultural underpinnings of that group and its use of popular Hollywood imagery of witches (from The Wizard of Oz) to attract media attention, as well as the more recent proliferation of media-based portrayals of witches (like those in Bewitched and The Craft) that inform contemporary political activism within the pagan community and in the wider culture.  The significance of media portrayals of witches for both practitioners and laypersons will be discussed, as it relates to both positive and negative developments within the current political zeitgeist.

I always find this kind of presentation fun.  From my days when I was deep into the movement called Second Wave Feminism, which was before I found the Craft so was not yet a Witch myself, I well remember the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell.  To discover that contemporary young women find inspiration from WITCH warms my heart.  My notes are scanty, but I know that Peg mentioned repressed memory therapy, likely relating to the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s.  I was kept abreast of much of this as it unfolded by way of my friend Don Frew, who was very involved because of its mistaken association with Wicca. 

Besom Brigade, Berkeley, CA
She also cited a 1977 writing by Cheri Lesh.  When I heard that, my ears perked up, because Cheri Lesh is a woman I’ve known since my first involvement in Witchcraft.  Her professional name, which is also her Craft name, is Cerridwen Fallingstar, and she was my sponsor when I took initiation vows.  It’s a strange feeling when the writings of someone you know in an other-than-academic context are cited, and you know this person well.

The revival of WITCH, whatever the acronym means today, relates to the phenomenon begun in Minneapolis by Steve Posch and manifested beyond his home turf, of besom brigades.  Besom brigades are drill teams of black-hatted Witches using brooms.  See photo.

«    Sabina MaglioccoWitchcraft as Political Resistance: Magical Responses to the 2016 Election.  Soon after the Presidential election of 2016, instructions for magic spells to stop the actions of Trump and his administration began to circulate on social media sites.  They have continued to spread throughout the first months of his presidency, sometimes going viral and being adopted by non-Pagans.  This paper examines the emergence of these spells and responses to them within and outside of the community of contemporary Pagan practitioners.  It explores why they emerged at this historical juncture as well as the reasons for their appeal both within and outside of magical communities, arguing that they exist as a performance of resistance that allows the expression of oppositional feelings at a time of high anxiety.  It also uses them to explore the complex attitudes towards magic, power, and ethics in the belief systems of contemporary Pagans.

One can count on the fact that Sabina’s presentations are clear, thorough, and interesting, and this one was no different.  The Craft community in which I have my roots, which I call my matrix community, has always had a strong political aspect.  Witches in that tradition frequently find themselves front and center of progressive political activism.   Needless to say, in today’s political climate activism is strong and growing.  Witness Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March of January 2017, and current youth-led activism around gun violence. 

Sabina spoke of the phenomenon of the urge to hex Donald Trump that swept through Witchen communities in the wake of his election.  The most common of these spells were “bindings” intended to thwart his efforts.  She credited these efforts, whether carried out or not, as a means of creative expression and anxiety relief.

This cultural episode also stimulated ethical discussion around the meaning the Witchen dictate of “Harm None.”  I have mixed feelings about political spellwork – its ethics, its effectiveness and the wisdom of employing it.  There are pages and pages about political spells in the wake of the last presidential election and its fallout.

«    Egil AspremThe Magical Theory of Politics: Meme Magic, the Cult of Kek, and How to Topple an Egregore.   The election of the 45th President of the United States set in motion a hidden war in the world of the occult.  From the meme-filled underworld of 4chan’s alt-right-dominated imageboards to the publicized “binding spell” against Trump and his supporters, the social and ideological divides ripping apart the American social fabric is mirrored by witches, magicians, and other esotericists fighting each other with magical means.  This paper focuses on the emerging online esoteric religion of the alt-right, the increasingly (re-)enchanted notion of “meme magic,” and the open confrontation between different magical paradigms that has ensued in order to (1) analyze the competing views of magical efficacy that get sharpened as material and political stakes appear to increase; and (2) theorize the religionizing tendency of the alt-right as a partly spontaneous and partially deliberate attempt to create “collective effervescence” and galvanize a movement around a (in Weberian terms) distinctly non-legalistic and non-traditional charismatic authority.

This talk was undoubtedly one of the strangest I’ve encountered at this venue.  I had heard of Pepe the Frog and had seen ugly images of him, but I generally ignore cartoon-y things.  It seems that Pepe the Frog generated The Cult of Kek , Kek being considered the Egyptian god of Chaos, as well as being part of the “Holy Trinity” of memetic entities: Kek the Father, Pepe the Son, and Pek the Holy Ghost.

Egil mentioned a right-wing Rosicrucian named David Griffin and his colleague (and perhaps wife) Leslie McQuade.  He also mentioned a Michael Hughes in connection with the rise of binding spells against Trump.  Michael Hughes being a common name, an Internet search arrived at a Michael M. Hughes.  It turns out that we have dozens of friends in common.  This Michael Hughes seems to be all on board with hexing Trump, with #BindTrump and #MagicResistance on his FB page.

A part of this general group of related phenomena is the collectively created “thought focus,” or Egregore.  The spell uses an unflattering photograph of Trump -- Gods know there are many from which to choose! – a  sigil of some kind, and an orange candle.

I’m sorry to say that lo these many months later there remains a need to curb the President’s ignorant and ill-considered behavior.

AAR-IV blog to follow.