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.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018


As a product of the counterculture, I tend to mistrust and avoid institutions.  I suspect this is a common attitude among “first generation”[1] NeoPagans in the U.S.  We found existing institutions, be they religious, educational, or governmental, to be oppressive, unfulfilling, and irrelevant to the conditions of the world in which we found ourselves.

Let’s face it: established religions such as Christianity in its many forms, were created and gained ascendency in other times and places.  There was no threat of nuclear annihilation, no looming environmental degradation, no water shortage, no organ transplants, no vaccinations against such diseases as smallpox and polio.  Those religions addressed the concerns of the peoples in other times and places.  Further, few of these religious institutions adapted to changing circumstances.  Nowadays some are trying to be more relevant, often by adopting practices, such as involving lay people in their rituals and dancing during worship.

In the years since Paganism has become visible, particularly in academia and interfaith, we have gained credibility in the wider world, and although we remain a religious minority,[2] we have not done much in the way of establishing lasting institutions.

There was a time when I was still too close to that against which I was rebelling and too chafed by the institutions I was escaping that I resisted any talk of Pagan institutions.  Sam Webster has convinced me that by creating institutions, we will have a lasting legacy that will survive our individual lives.

The institution to which I’ve devoted the most time and energy for the last 12 years or so is Cherry Hill Seminary, for many reasons, not the least of which is that I find intellectual discernment to be in short supply, drowned out by the noises of UPG (unverified/unverifiable personal gnosis) woowoo.[3]

Smaller institutions like CoG do maintain disaster relief funds, never very big.

Most Pagans do as I do, and contribute to existing institutions that were created to address certain crises, like the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders.  And to other nonprofits related to environmentalism, the pursuit of peace, seeking cures for specific diseases.  I’m comfortable that those institutions are established, organized, funded, and run more efficiently than any smaller Pagan organization could be to achieve their stated goals.

Having said all that, I come to the subject that is the immediate incentive for this post.

I have been meeting with the Wiccan circle at San Quentin State Prison. This service has led to my encountering

Federal law mandates that all inmates in any prison in the country be afforded religious worship and counsel of their choice.  This is what allows this circle to meet.  The Wiccan circle at San Quentin meets in what is called the minority faith chapel, which is shared with Spanish-language evangelical Christians, practitioners of Ifa,[4] and others.  Our “chapel” is a fairly dismal place that we try our best to decorate when we meet.

So here’s my problem: financial and other support for the few Wiccan inmates.  It’s obvious that mainstream religions, particularly some Christian sects, have a much easier time doing their thing.  They appear to me to be given priority over minority religions as to meeting space, resources, and time.

Christians have the Gideons distributing Bibles.  Depending upon their particular Christian sect, inmates are provided with missals, rosaries, images, and all manner of study and meditative literature.  Jewish inmates have Torahs and Muslims the Koran.  Abrahamic inmates have access to a plethora of Abrahamic literature.  And although we Pagans have no “book,” per se, we do have plenty of books and other writings.

Prison libraries, like those in our communities, experience the frequent disappearance of Pagan or Craft-related titles.  The Jewish chaplain at San Quentin, who supervises our particular minority faith, and thereby me, has offered to keep books in her office and lend them to individual inmates.  This is not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.

Individual Pagans have helped me set up this ministry by donating books they’ve written.  For instance, Christopher Penczak sent me two of his books, which I will use to the extent I can.[5]

The previous incarnation of this circle were devoted specifically to Isis and Ra.  Wishing to provide these men with meaningful materials, I bought the newly published tenth anniversary edition of Isis Magic, by M. Isadora Forest.  If this book proves helpful, I will see if I can get a copy donated to the small Pagan library in the Jewish chaplain’s office.

I am also considering providing them with two of Ivo Dominguez, Jr.’s books, Spirit Speak and Casting Sacred Space, in addition to exploring other books and sources.

Currently I bring in photocopies of a page or two each time – a meditation, a drawing or chart, an image and/or prayer, a song.  This isn’t the most efficient way to provide them with literature, one reason being that I myself have limited resources and copying costs can add up.

I’m aware of at least two recent publications created to address the training of Pagan inmates, but I’m unsatisfied with them and do not wish to use them.  One is more formal and “high episcopagan” for my taste and the other lacks a cohesive approach.  Therefore, I’m seeking sources harmonious with my approach and talents.  Bear in mind that inmates cannot have such things as candles and incense in their cells, nor can they have any images of the divine that are unclothed.  They are, for instance, allowed to have a deck of Tarot cards, but most Tarot decks show at least a breast or two and therefore don’t meet prison restrictions.  I understand that Raven Grimassi has designed a deck specifically for inmate use and will check this out further. 

* * * * *
Circling back to the notion of Pagan institutions:  Now that I’ve lived considerably more than half my life – I’m glad to be around and am hoping to reach 100 – I’m thinking about legacies.  What are we Pagans leaving our children and grandchildren in terms of our religions?  We already know that our Mother Earth is changing in a direction that’s not conducive to life as we know it.  Not meaning to be a doomsayer, just stating the obvious.  Climate change, however, is a topic for a different discussion.  In the meantime, assuming we adapt – and I really believe that Pagan values, perspectives, and minds have much to offer in the search for solutions – what kind of institutions, if any, are we leaving our descendants?

[1]           By “first generation” I mean those boomers and pre-boomers who grasped whatever threads of Pagan practice and thought they could find, wove them into a fabric of their making, and grew to become contemporary American Paganism. Many were disillusioned or unsatisfied by the religions in which they were reared, or came from secular or mixed-religion families. Some of these threads were tied to older traditions, such as Gardnerian Wicca, in Britain; however, in the main, we self-determined out of many sources (mythology and folklore, ethnic and familiar customs, environmentalism, feminism, and the zeitgeist in general.
[2]           It’s fine with me if we remain a minority religion.  We do not seek converts as many of the mainstream religions do.  I don’t hold growing our numbers as a goal.  Paganism is not for everyone, but for those of us like myself to whom it matters, we are entitled to equal treatment and a voice in our communities and governments.
[3]           I am in no way putting down UPG; I consider it akin to mysticism/the mystical experience.  However, since it is so personal, idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and cannot be recreated, UPG does not allow the kind of rational analysis that other religious phenomena permit.
[4]           Strictly speaking, a divinatory system found in Yoruba and other African diaspora religions.
[5]           Inmates are not allowed candles, for instance, and many of the exercises in Christopher’s books employ candles.  I, and we (inmates and myself) have to adapt as much as we can.