This Body, This World

Sex not Symbol

A FEW WEEKS AGO I was teaching Hesiod’s Theogony to my philosophy students. We were moving on to the Pre-Socratic philosophers next: being familiar with the mythopoetic worldview against which these early philosophers define themselves is necessary for really engaging with them. We were discussing the generations of the gods, and how Hesiod’s universe is one powered by erotic love and sex (in contrast to the god of Genesis who speaks the cosmos into existence). Hesiod’s gods reproduce the universe into existence. Not voice, thought, or meaning, but passion and bodily drive are the essence of reality for the Archaic Greeks.

When discussing the first gods, I discovered my students were having a very hard time understanding how we could seriously consider the earth, Gaia, and heaven, Ouranos, as living gods.

“Think about it,” I insisted, “when you stand on the earth it’s alive. Things are born from it, out of it. We feel its responsive living flesh as we garden, as we walk on its grassy skin. Some days, when the clouds are low and fog covers the landscape, you can feel how heaven leans down and nestles upon the earth, leaving the damp and the dew from which new things grow.

“Imagine, as in the story, if heaven refused to get back up, if it insisted upon laying upon earth (its mother and lover) without stopping. Imagine the sky closing in upon the landscape, with no space, no light, and no air into which new life could rise between heaven and earth. This is what Ouranos did to Gaia before she appealed to her unborn son Chronos, hidden within the caverns of her bowls, to turn against his father and force him to retreat by castrating him. Then alone was there space, the space that is our world, in which things could be born and grow beneath heaven and above the earth.”

“Ah,” they said, “it is a symbol and metaphor. That is why it is hard to understand.”

“No,” I insisted. “There is no metaphor here and no symbol. For the poet the earth is literally alive, a reproducing body, as is the sky. The living earth was the first goddess. It seemed such a simple and obvious idea, not creative but readily apparent in looking at the world. The earth lives. The earth gives birth. The earth is a body.”

feuerbach_gaea
“Gaea” 1875 painting by Anselm Feuerbach

I was struck by all the levels of conceptual resistance this simple image had to fight in my students, in contrast to the empirical obviousness with which it would have appeared to Hesiod and the people of his time.

pullTo my students, the earth might contain living things, but it wasn’t alive, it wasn’t a body. It was a collection of resources and raw materials. It was food and fuel—not stomach, heart, and womb.

The earth couldn’t be a goddess, either, because gods and goddesses were transcendent, spiritual, and human-like. Were I to say that the earth had a spirit that could appear as a motherly woman they would immediately understand. But say the earth itself was a goddess, not some transcendent spirit that might appear or disappear and always look more or less like us, and the words just didn’t make sense any more. Gods were spirits and souls, not bodies. Gods were people, not mountains and forests and fields.

Think of the depictions of “mother earth” we are all no doubt familiar with and you get the idea of what my students wanted to think Hesiod meant. We even capture this sense in our insistent use of the word “of” in speaking of Pagan divinities. There are goddesses and gods of the sea, gods and goddesses of the sky, goddesses and gods of the earth. But not the goddess earth or the god heaven. They could make sense of Poseidon, but not Oceanus: one a god of the sea, the other the god ocean. They could work with Demeter but not Gaia: one a goddess of the earth and the other the goddess earth. They could make sense of Zeus, god of the sky, but not Ouranos, god that is heaven. 

So too, the sex of the divinities must be metaphor, as must be that odd moment in Genesis when god was heard “walking in the cool of the garden.” Gods don’t walk, aren’t heard doing so, and don’t enjoy the cool of a shady garden. This is all because gods don’t have bodies.

“But they eat,” I wanted to say, “they have their own food called ‘ambrosia.'”

“Ah,” they might reply, “but it is a spiritual food.”

“But they bleed, there is a special term for their blood, the Greeks called it ‘ichor.’ Again, it is surely spiritual blood.”

There was a time when gods had bodies, and our world was the body of a goddess—a time when the cosmos was a kaleidoscopic orgy of copulating divine bodies.

agricola1
Woodblock print by George Bauer from “De Re Metallica”.

Birth of the Bodiless

MOST OF HUMAN history and thought (certainly Western thought, but it is not limited to this) has a deep problem with bodies. We fear them, we hate them, we are embarrassed by them. When and where they are accepted they frequently need domesticating. They must be purified, beautified, cleansed, and elevated. But the most common trend is that they need to be transcended, rejected, dismissed, or destroyed. The soul, the mind, the self or non-self is what is important, not the fleshy sack it finds itself in, or mistakenly believes it finds itself in. This trend is found alike in philosophy, religion, science, and occultism. Each, in their own way, have served as an escape from the body. Behind this can always be found the nagging insistence: the Truth is not a body. Transcendent and spiritual, the Truth is the opposite of a body. 

Despite the rejection of the body, its central importance has never been erased. Our politics for millennia has been a politics of bodies. Shaping and organizing bodies, placing them in ordered spaces, determining which bodies are in and what out, using bodies to manipulate, control, and destroy. This involves making some bodies unlivable, crafting cities where certain bodies have no space or cannot travel, crafting cages for other bodies.

pullRejecting bodies, encouraging people to reject the body as a whole, is a strategy and method for controlling those bodies whether it takes the form of religious focus on asceticism and transcendence, or fascist purifications of the political body of “degeneracy.” Finally, of course, we have capitalism’s drive to turn the body into a machine as discussed so powerfully by Silvia Federici’s excellent essay “In Praise of the Dancing Body” and the second half of Rhyd Wildermuth’s recent talk “Witches in a Crumbling Empire,” both works that have heavily inspired this essay.   

There are many fascinating paths along which the peoples of the world traveled from embodied gods and the world-as-body to rejecting the body and aiming for its destruction. It has amusingly been argued, for example, that Socrates’ ugliness—and the assumption in Classical Greece that body reflects soul—was a problem that Plato had to answer through a strengthening of the mind/body dualism. It is not the body that is virtuous, but the mind and soul.  The body, argues Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo, is a prison and nothing more. This idea would gain in importance in Neo-Platonism, the early Christianity it influenced, and many of the so-called Gnostic religions. It becomes the central spoke of most Western religion and mysticism alike.

Rejection of the body leads to all kinds of problems whether theological, metaphysical, or psychological. In this regard, the centrality that the monotheistic incarnation came to play in Christianity is ironically a solution to an invented problem. The rejection of the body and abstraction of god led to too great a tension to be maintained. Considering that god is so distant, transcendent, spiritual, infinite, what possible relationship can there be between it and us? Miraculously, divinity deigns to the ultimate sacrifice: the taking on of body. The entire thing can’t help but feel like something of a puppet play unless one has already come to deeply accept that being embodied is a disgusting horror. It is a solution to a problem invented in the first place.

Hesiod wouldn’t have known what to make of the incarnation. The gods are the ultimately embodied. This wasn’t because his thinking was more “primitive” but rather because he wasn’t suffering from an unnecessary dilemma. When it came to the challenge and danger of having a body, the Pagans were much more brave than those who would follow after.

wenceslas_hollar_-_the_greek_gods-_tryphon
Depiction of Typhon by Wenceslas Hollar

When the Gods had Bodies 

I HAVE ALWAYS FOUND the Norse myths, captured in the Poetic and Prose Eddas, intoxicating. Here is a vision of embodied divinity, and the earth as body, that is strikingly different from the Greek vision while sharing in its essential insight. The world as we know it comes from the body of the giant Ymir, with some of its earliest inhabitants growing from the giant’s armpits, or being licked out of blocks of ice. The world is built out of the body of Ymir after he is killed (there are similar renditions of Greek myth, in which key elements of the world and life are built out of an ancient dismembered divinity). If Hesiod’s is a story of sex, the Norse story is one of existence arising from flesh, entrails, guts, and bones. In either view, the world is body, but there is something rather important in wondering whether it is a living divinity or a cosmic undead corpse. 

The Norse gods are consistently embodied. They drink and eat with gusto and fight with equal pleasure. It is easier, though I would claim mistaken, to see in Greek embodied divinity a metaphor for spiritual truths, than in the raucous escapades of the Norse gods. In either worldview, however, there are gradations and variations of embodiment that are worth discussing.

My earlier consideration of the difference between a goddess of the earth and the goddess who is the earth was not meant to imply that our use of the genitive in speaking of the Titans and Olympians is wrong. There are important differences between Demeter and Gaia, between Poseidon and Oceanus, between Zeus and Ouranos. The simplest distinction is also the most obvious: the generations of the gods grow more human over time particularly because of the form their embodiment takes. Gaia is the earth and looks like the earth, while Zeus looks like a man. A similar process happens in Norse mythology in the movement from the monstrous gargantuan Ymir, whose remains eventually go towards making up the world, to the much more human seeming Odin, Freyja, and Thor. Between the primordial divinities of cosmic scale and the ruling human-like divinities of the latest generation there is found a third group, those we might call the monstrous.

The fascinating thing about the embodied divinities of Pagan cultures is that they are not only the beautiful and the ugly, not only the perfected and horribly human, there is a vast category of the embodied Other of whom I have spoken before. Gaia, for example, gave birth to the three dreaded Hecatonchires who had a hundred arms and fifty heads. Amongst the generations before Zeus we also have Echidna, a beautiful nymph from the waist up and a horrifying snake from the waist down. There is also Typhon, born to Gaia after Zeus’ defeat of the Titans when she became enraged at the gods’ attack upon her children. Descriptions of Typhon are many and inconsistent, but he is often described as if he had the body of a man mounted by a hundred snake or dragon heads. In Norse mythology we have all the giants generally, but also the children of Loki: the massive Midgard serpent which grew so large it enwrapped the world, the terrible wolf Fenrir who was destined to kill Odin and devour the sun and moon, and Hel who appeared on one side as a young maiden and on the other as a rotting corpse of a dead maiden. We could multiply these examples endlessly, from Giants to Gorgons to Furies. 

Bomarzo 15
Statue of Echidna by Pirro Ligorio, 1555, in the “Park of Monsters” Italy.

One thing we can learn from this juggling of bodily variation is that the Pagan worldview embraces the-body-in-contestation. I’ve argued previously that despite featuring divine monarchies, the Pagan worldview is not a solidly hierarchical or authoritarian one. Monotheistic religions depict a cosmos in which authority and absolute rule is written indelibly into the very structure of being. This tyranny is unalterable. Pagan mythologies, on the other hand, depict an entire cosmos in which order is always in contention and negotiation. Order and structure, like life growing from the earth in general, rises and falls through shifting and unexpected changes outside any control whether divine or human. Zeus’ reign is tentative, as indeed is the rule of the Olympians in general, and Odin knows he will die eventually and the entire world will change.

This essential instability and force of change at the heart of the Pagan cosmos is body, the bodily nature of reality. For the Greeks is was eros, or the bodily sexual drive. For Hesiod, eros was born along with the very first goddesses and gods and provokes their actions and the birth of each successive stage of reality. The cosmos for Pagans is living, is growing and changing, dying and being reborn. There is no more control on the parts of the gods than we have over our own aging and fragile bodies. But more than this, though the generally young ruling divinities certainly tend to be seen through the lens of supposedly perfect bodies, the divine world is populated by wild and unruly pluralities of bodies from the earth itself, through the monstrous and unusual, to the heights of human beauty. The embodied gods are as diverse and chaotically fertile as the divine desire-driven cosmic body itself.

There is a particularly potent message concerning the Pagan view of body in the status of Hephaestus. Hephaestus is the god of smiths and the crafts in general. He is also commonly the butt of jokes in Olympus because his body does not fit the “perfection” of the gods around him. He is partially lame. We are told how his wife, Aphrodite, cheats on him with Ares and one of the most chilling scenes in Homer’s Iliad concerns a conflict on Olympus in which the gods nearly come to blows until Hephaestus breaks the tension by limping around serving, and spilling, wine—thus provoking the other gods to laugh at him. Here is a hint of the horrors that privileged bodies can perform on those lacking this privilege. But the situation is rather more complex than this. Judging by place-names and confirmed temple locations, Hephaestus was one of the most important and popular gods for the Ancient Greeks. Zeus may be king, but lame Hephaestus was in many ways more central and beloved.     

pullThe body, whether that of the cosmos, the gods, humans, plants, or animals, is ultimately ungovernable.  This is the message of the place of body in Pagan reality. Embodied desire and need, the motor of the unstoppable cosmic changes we might as well call fate, can at best be temporarily negotiated into an order. But it cannot be dominated, cannot be governed, cannot be stopped—at least not for long.

There is a reason power has always feared the body, and always attempted to crush it or convince us it is unimportant. The power to resist and change is a bodily power. Nowhere is this power more concentrated than in those bodies that society would seek to make unlivable: bodies not fitting into social standards of beauty, health, or capability, bodies with desires and drives rejected by social forces, bodies of the ‘wrong’ shape, size, or color, and ultimately the abject nature of all bodies in general. What society would make unlivable is really ungovernable in the very best and most promising sense. 

The wealth and promise of Paganism is captured in the way it reintroduces us to the body: a body that we share with the earth and the gods, a cosmos unified in its bodily fragility and drive. It is this that dooms all tyranny and empire, this body, this world. 

 

lokis_children_by_frolich
“Loki’s Children” by Lorenz Frolich, 1906.

Kadmus

kadmusKadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem.


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“Standard in the Industry”: Patheos and Normalizing Corporate Abuse

The recent actions of Patheos are representative of broader trends in our society which are deeply troubling.

A little background…

… in case you don’t know what happened. If you do, feel free to skip to the end (“the big picture…”).

Until this week, I wrote a blog at Patheos called “The Allergic Pagan.” I had been writing for Patheos for about four years. A few months ago Patheos was purchased by Beliefnet, which is owned by an evangelical organization. There were concerns over what this would mean for the Pagan channel, but our editor, Jason Mankey, assured us that nothing would change.

On January 30, 2017, the writers at Patheos, who are all independent contractors, received new contracts to sign—not because our contracts had expired, but because Patheos/BN wanted to change the terms. For many of the writers, they had no prior notice from their editor that the new contract was coming. I had been given a heads up by Mankey the Friday before. However, all he said was that there would be changes to the pay structure. He did not give any indication of any of the other substantial changes in the contract.

When I received the contract on the following Monday, I was shocked by what I read. I am a lawyer by profession and reading and interpreting contracts is something I do regularly. This was an egregiously one-sided contract. (Here is a link to the contract.) And the contract was due by February 1st, less than 48 hours later, giving writers little time to consider the contract or consult legal counsel.

What the contract said…

The most problematic part of the contact had to do with new editorial controls. The new contract allowed Patheos to edit any of our posts “without limitation.” We were explicitly prohibited from using profanity (with some exceptions). The contract required that the “tone” (a very subjective term) resemble that of other online media with which Patheos compared itself, like Slate and Huffington Post. The contract also prohibited advertising or “self-promotion” (another vague term). We were also barred from posting a “farewell” post without approval, and even approved farewell posts would be deleted after seven days. Patheos could move any of our posts to Beliefnet or any other site that it acquired in the future. And, finally, Patheos could delete any post it deemed, in its sole discretion, to be “offensive” (yet another ambiguous term).

The contract also prohibited “disparaging” of Patheos or any “related” company. A little research by Pat Mosley revealed that Patheos was related to a number of far right-wing organizations, including the National Rifle Association, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Focus on the Family, Gun Owners of America, Promise Keepers, Concerned Women for America, the American Family Association, and the American Center of Law and Justice.

The American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ) for example, promotes conservative Christian laws in Africa, including support for a bill in Uganda that would have implemented the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”. The connection between Patheos and the ACLJ is not hard to trace. Jeremy McGee is President and COO of Patheos, and also also on the Board of Affinity4. Both Patheos and Affinity4 are BN (Beliefnet) Media brands. Guess who else is on the 4-person Board of Affinity4? Jay Sekulow, who is is Chief Counsel for the ACLJ!

Under the new contract, the organizations could be considered “related” companies that Patheos Pagan writers not permitted to “disparage.” This interpretation of the contract was independently confirmed by another lawyer and by Gwion Raven, who also reads contracts for a living.

You see, lawyers thrive on ambiguous language like “related,” “offensive,” “self-promotion,” etc. Because Patheos can afford to pay for lawyers, and many of the Patheos Pagan writers cannot, and because the contract required that legal disputes be settled in the state of Patheos’ choosing, these contract provisions would most likely be interpreted to favor Patheos.

What happened next…

When some of us raised these issues with our editor, Jason Mankey, he told us to contact the President/COO of Patheos to discuss them. I repeatedly urged Mankey to act as our advocate and not just a messenger for the corporation, but he acted as powerless as we felt.

So, the following morning, on Tuesday, I wrote a post on my blog on the Patheos Pagan channel. The post was entitled, “Read This Before Patheos Delete It.” (You can read it here, where is has been reposted.) The subject of the post was the terms of the contract and my criticism. The title of the post was deliberately provocative (and I did use the f-bomb once), but it was otherwise an analysis of the contract (kind of boring as blog posts go).

screen-shot-2017-02-02-at-6-30-14-pmAfter posting the article, I was contacted by Mankey who asked what I wanted. I reiterated that I wanted him to renegotiate the contract for us. I also told him that I did not intend to sign the contract as written, but that neither was I voluntarily leaving Patheos. I told him I would await Patheos’ response. An hour later, the post was summarily taken down and my access to my entire blog (almost 1000 posts) was blocked. This was done without any further contact from Mankey or anyone else at Patheos. No request was made to me to remove the post (I wouldn’t have consented, but I should have been asked) and no warning was given before my account was blocked.

Now, all this was done before the new contract period began. This means that the terms of my original 2013 contract were still in effect when Patheos blocked my access. The 2013 contract (a link to which I have provided here) had no editorial limitations. There was no “disparagement” clause in the 2013 contract, and no right of Patheos to remove the post, much less block my access to my blog.

Rhyd Wildermuth offered to repost my original article at Gods & Radicals and I agreed. (You can read it here.) This apparently peeved Patheos off, and Mankey insisted that I amend the post to reflect his more generous interpretation of the contract. I refused. Mankey then blocked me from the Patheos Pagan Writer’s Facebook group, where there was an ongoing debate about how to respond to the new contract.

Pat Mosley, another Patheos Pagan writer, also wrote a critical analysis of the new contract, entitled “What the Fuck Just Happened at Patheos?” Pat focused on the relationship of Patheos, via Beliefnet, to the above-mentioned right-wing organizations. Now, Pat posted this on this personal blog, not on Patheos. Nevertheless, he was then banned from Patheos without notice.

The debate begins…

I won’t deny that I poked the bear. Of course, I did it intentionally. It was a test… one which Patheos failed. Patheos showed its true colors when they deleted my post and blocked me and Pat from our accounts. They said (actually in the contract) they wanted to be treated like journalistic institutions like HuffPo and Slate. Well then, they should act like HuffPo and Slate. They should act consistently with journalistic ethics. And that includes abiding public criticism in an opinion piece, even from one of your own writers.

Subsequently, Gwion Raven and I initiated discussions with Jeremy McGee, the President and COO of Patheos, to attempt to renegotiate the contract. I requested that my access to my site be restored as a sign of good faith, and I offered not to post any “disparaging” comments about Patheos during the contract renegotiation process. My request was ignored. Meantime, Mankey and McGee were telling everyone that (1) Patheos did not intend to enforce the terms of the contract and (2) we should all trust Patheos based on their “track record” and Mankey’s faith in their “intentions.”

First, it was irresponsible and naive of Mankey to suggest that we should sign an agreement under the belief that the corporation will not exercise the rights it has explicitly written into the contract. Mankey and the other editors have insisted that no one was trying to censor us, or alter our work, etc. Then why, I asked, include provisions in the contract which allow them to do exactly that? The President and COO of Patheos wrote that if we wanted to change the “without limitation” language, then the discussion was “done.” Why, if they did not intend to enforce the contract terms, insist on those terms? Neither Mankey nor McGee have ever answered that question.

Second, the notion that Beliefnet had a proven track record after only four months since purchasing Patheos is absurd, especially when you consider that those four months include their peremptory and punitive action against me and Pat. And if we look further back, we discover that Beliefnet does in fact have a history of censoring Pagans. I talked to Gus DiZerega, who used to write for Beliefnet. He told me that he left Beliefnet after they summarily deleted a conversation on his blog criticizing a Christian who had condoned the abuse of African witches by African Christians. When Gus complained, he was told it was their site not his, so he left.

And let’s not forget the contract itself. Just sending the contract to us, knowing that most people would sign it without reading or understanding it, was itself an act of bad faith and indicative of the attitude of the new owners of Patheos.

Mankey wanted us to believe the best of Patheos. I have no doubt about Mankey’s sincerity, but it would be naive to ignore the fact that he is paid by Patheos. And that does affect people’s judgment, whether they realize it or not. Mankey even told me that we should trust Patheos because they are flying him out to visit their corporate headquarters. That, in my opinion, shows an impairment of judgment.

Mankey has posted his response to recent events on Patheos (and you can read it here). However, he has closed the comments to the post, which is telling in itself.

The fallout…

2x7yURlGgqgp5p8lE0PIBgFAo1_250.jpgAfter the situation exploded in his face, the President and COO of Patheos did strike a slightly more conciliatory tone with us. A few changes were made to the contract, but Patheos still retained the right to remove posts it deemed “offensive” and to move posts to any other site it owns or may own in the future, and writers are still prohibited from using more profanity than Patheos likes or “disparaging” Patheos or Beliefnet.

Ultimately, several people left Patheos, in spite of the changes, including myself, Pat Mosley, David Dashifen Kees (who was the editor of the Agora hub on the Pagan channel), Cat Chapin-Bishop, Shauna Aura Knight, Yvonne Aburrow, Peg Aloi, Lupa, Dana Corby, Catherine Clarenbach, Laine Lundquist, Christopher Scott Thompson, Sam Webster, Starling Foster, Gus DiZerega, and possibly others I don’t know about—that’s more than a third of the active blogs at Patheos. There are still people deciding whether to leave. Now, I know some of you probably think I’m a loose cannon, and you’d be right. But anyone who knows anything about the people above who have left would have to conclude that there must be something really wrong at Patheos. (It’s also telling that quite of few people who have been consistent critics of my writing at Patheos have publicly expressed their support now.)

For some people, it was the relationship between Patheos and far right-wing groups that was the most problematic. The exact degree to which they are intertwined is unknown and difficult to suss out, but it was enough to make most of us uncomfortable and enough for some people to leave. Others who have left or are considering it were most bothered by the contract terms and/or Patheos’ censoring of me and Pat or a combination of all of the above.

The bigger picture…

Now I’m going to get to my point. Throughout all of this, we were told by Mankey and McGee that this is “standard in the world of online publishing”. Words like “boilerplate” were thrown around. First of all, there was nothing “boilerplate” or “standard” about many of the provisions in the contract. If I had sent that contract to another attorney, they would have considered it a slap in the face.

Not only was the contract extremely one-sided, it was also unusual. I write for the Huffington Post (with whom Patheos now compares itself), and I didn’t have to sign anything to write for them. I also didn’t sign anything to write for Witches & Pagans or Gods & Radicals. I did sign something for Patheos in 2013, but it contained no editorial controls. Christine Hoff Kraemer, my editor at the time, did send me a FAQ document (you can read it here) with editorial guidelines. But these were not included in the contract. They were offered in the spirit of creating a relationship, power-with rather than power-over. McGee claimed he wants a relationship with his writers, but he only knows the language of corporations, the language of power-over.

But, to a certain extent, Mankey is right: Patheos’ conduct was just standard corporate operating procedure. The thing is, that’s a problem. What happened at Patheos is a microcosm of some of what has been happening on the national stage recently, with the power of corporations expanding and those same corporations (through their political lapdogs) trying to put limits on our freedom of speech, and with the swallowing of journalistic institutions by for-profit corporations.

When we hear the words “standard in the industry,” they should signal to us, not that everything is copacetic, but that there is a problem with the industry. It’s a problem when we normalize bad corporate behavior with words like “standard” and “boilerplate.” It’s a problem when we are so accustomed to bad faith and manipulation by corporations that we just shrug it off. And it’s a problem when we shame those who try to stand up to corporate abuse.

And most of all, it’s a problem when we think we have no power in dealing with corporations. That’s what the words “standard in the industry” and “boilerplate” are meant to do. They’re meant to make us feel powerless. But we do have power. We have power when we are informed. We have power when we use our voices, and when we use our feet. We have power when we act together.


John Halstead

halsteadJohn Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogged about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which was hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and is the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.


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Solidarity Beyond Bars: Pagans in Prison

The United States has 22% of the world’s prisoners but only 4.4% of the world’s population. Solidarity has always been a primary focus of radical and religious groups, but little is spoken of efforts to provide spiritual solidarity for Pagans and Heathens. So, I spoke with Donna Donovan, the founder of Appalachian Pagan Ministry to find out about her work and how others can help.


RHYD: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to talk with us. Could you tell me about yourself, and the work you do with the Appalachian Prison Ministry?

DONNA DONOVAN: Thank you for having us! My name is Donna Donovan, and I am the founder of Appalachian Pagan Ministry. We are a pan-Pagan ministry devoted to building an engaged, passionate, and spiritually fulfilled community of people from all backgrounds and faiths. We are devoted to engaging and impacting one another and others, believing it is our responsibility to set an example of service. This is where we come to “walk our talk” and educate by example.

Our main focus is our pan-Pagan prison ministry developed to serve the spiritual needs of our fellow Pagans currently incarcerated. Currently, we are the only Pagan ministry allowed in to West Virginia state prisons, serving monthly on-site at 5 facilities, along with monthly on-site services at 5 facilities in Ohio, including Death Row. We also serve, via correspondence, to several Kindreds and Covens in facilities across the United States.

RHYD: I’d like to ask you about the specific sorts of difficulties and needs of prisoners, but before that, can you talk about the barriers groups hoping to help prisoners face? What is certification like, what sorts of restrictions are you under, and how difficult is it to convince prison officials and state bodies to grant you access?

DONNA DONOVAN:  Since the passing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, followed by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in 2000, inmates around the country of non-Abrahamic paths have been fighting to get their religious rights while incarcerated. The stigmas associated with the various “Pagan” groups in prison are really no different then the outside. Wiccans are considered evil, baby sacrificing, devil worshippers, and those of the Heathen paths are all a bunch of Nazi skinheads. As I tell the inmates I work with, many of these stigmas and attitudes did not just come out of thin air. There is a long history of violence perpetuated by various groups pushing their agendas through while trying to hide behind these religious paths. However, much like the outside, the fear is based on ignorance; a simple lack of understanding.

As with most States, in Ohio and West Virginia, volunteer programs such as ours, our what is considered “inmate driven” not “volunteer driven.” That means we have to be requested by the inmates. We can not solicit to go in. At that point, it is usually the prison Chaplain who contacts us. That’s when our battle begins.

So the first obstacle is approaching the administration and teaching them. Show them that we are not coming in there to start a race war, or to incite violence or anything else other than teaching folks about the faith of their choosing. Plain and simple. Wearing normal street clothes instead of prancing in there in festival garb and 10″ pentacles tends to help, too. [laughs] The point is that administration needs to understand that just because we do not worship the same does not mean we are not like them and everyone else walking.

Once you get past the door, then you have to fill out so much paperwork, you literally think you are buying a home. Background checks need to be done, recommendations sent, and so on. This process tends to take weeks, if not months. When you are finally approved, you then have to go through a volunteer training and orientation. All of this is for each and every facility. A few hours of videos and lectures, some questionnaires, tours, etc.. We then schedule a date to present to the inmates and go on to schedule our monthly meetings from there.

RHYD: Your prison work is in Appalachia, one of the poorest regions in the United States. And of course, poverty and incarceration are deeply linked in Capitalist societies: most crimes on the books are ‘property’ and economic crimes. From your vantage point, what are the struggles you see for the prisoners you work with? I’m wondering, also, about the matter of discrimination you encounter against prisoners by the rest of society.

DONNA DONOVAN: You are correct, this is one of the most poverty stricken areas, as well as being one of the hardest hit by the opiate epidemic. Huntington, WV, where APM is based, is the overdose capital per capita in the entire country.

donna-pullHowever, mass incarceration is a national problem, not just regional. Our “war on drugs” has obviously failed. The only success has been the profit margins of those in the privatized prisons business. Our nation’s prisons went from being rehabilitative to punitive in the late 80s/early 90s when private companies like CCA took over.

Which leads to the answer to your second question. When an inmate undergoes incarceration and spends that time doing absolutely nothing productive, nothing rehabilitative…of course they come out of prison with no skills, no socialization and they end up going right back to the lifestyle that led them there in the first place. 95% of those currently incarcerated WILL BE released. Within 3 years, 60-75% of those will re-offend. But that’s what these private prisons want; they want the recidivism rates to stay high so their profits stay up. Quite sad when you think about that. What people do not think about is where those profits come from. They come from you. They come from me. Your taxes pay so CCAs, CEOs, and managers can live their luxurious lifestyles. You’re also paying for all those families whose loved ones are incarcerated, as the majority end up being single parent households on welfare.

When I asked the inmates what could be done for them to help them before they were released, they overwhelmingly answered “programs that help us adapt into society, education, life skills, the ability to grow in body, mind and spirit.” Therapy through art is one program that has shown success, mentoring programs, and programs such as ours that help them to grow in the faith of their choosing.

What sort of discrimination do I encounter in regards to inmates? “They’re criminals, they’re degenerates, they don’t deserve help.” From the Heathen community I hear a great deal about dishonor. Really? These inmates, male and female alike, know the mistakes they have made in their lives. They are paying for those mistakes. Yet instead of wallowing in self-pity or continuing to blame outside sources for their current situation, they are holding themselves accountable and doing what they can to grow in body, mind and spirit to ensure they do not make those same mistakes again. Truly, how many of us really do that? These folks have made oaths to themselves, to their Gods, and to their ancestors to live honorably. They realize, and freely admit, they did not do so before…which is why they are in prison. How can we not help them be able to do that?

RHYD: It’s difficult to find current statistics on prison population, but the most recent I could find (2013) showed the US has 22% of the world’s inmates despite having only 4.4% of the world’s population. So there’s definitely something going on besides ‘dishonor’ and ‘degeneracy,’ and profit looks like a huge factor.

Moving away from the larger societal issues towards your work with prisoners themselves: what exactly does your work look like? Can you describe your on-site and correspondence work?

519px-thors_hammer_skaneDONNA DONOVAN: When we go into a facility for the first time, we hold a general presentation for all inmates of non-Abrahamic paths. Wiccans, Odinists, Druid, eclectic, and even Satanist/Luciferians. Whoever chooses to come. This has been quite historic, actually, as these groups in prison almost never mingle. At least not without violence. We have not had one incident occur. After the general presentation, which is basically an introduction to who we are, what we do, and what we hope to do, followed by a Q&A with the inmates, we then set schedules for the upcoming visits.

From then on when we go in, we normally separate in two groups. I take the Heathens and we basically hold a moot: small Blot, rune drawing and readings, study a lesson, read from the Lore, and discuss the Havamal a few stanzas at a time. The course I am working with them is the Elder Troth Lore Program. Teresa, my on-the-ground volunteer, takes the Wiccans and eclectics and works with them her own sort of Wicca 101 program. In WV, I am also working a program with the Satanists.

Our correspondence courses are handled by several volunteers. The courses we offer, on top of the ones we handle in the prisons (which are also done via correspondence) are Pagan Astrology, Chaos Magick, Developing Divine Relationships (a devotional polytheist course), and Perennial Lessons in Living–a Druidic course by Emma Restall-Orr reinterpreted by me (with her permission) to be a bit more generalized.

At this time there is about 20 Kindreds nationally doing courses with us.

RHYD: With the programs and courses that you present or develop, do you run into many problems with censorship? How helpful or difficult are the relationships with prison chaplains and supervisors?

Honestly I have not. Prior to going into facilities in either state, West Virginia and Ohio, I met with State Prison officials and submitted outlines of the courses we were offering. All were approved. Surprisingly we have had tremendous support from both chaplains and administrative staffing.

When I first formed APM, I sent an email to the Commissioner of the WV Dept of Corrections introducing us and explaining what we wanted to do. I honestly did not expect an answer. I received an email the very next day requesting to meet with us in Charleston. Two months later we were in our first facility.

I truly believe the tide is changing. People are starting to see that the status quo is not working, and seeking alternatives. Either that or I am just exceptionally charming, and I doubt that is it.

RHYD: Or perhaps both? [laughs]

I’m also curious about white nationalism within prisons. I wrote to queer prisoners 8 years ago, and started a correspondence with a gay Asatruar. Our conversations about race and Paganism seemed to be going well, but I stopped my correspondence with him after he sent me a shirtless photo of himself in front of a swastika. Basically, I freaked. I’m still uncertain that was the right decision, especially once I realised he had no other non-racist Pagan contacts.

So, I can see how your work is deeply important, especially since so many are quick to abandon Pagan and Heathen prisoners. How much influence have you seen on the Heathens you work with from more organised white nationalist groups?

DONNA DONOVAN: Oh my, that is a loaded question. [laughs.] There is a huge influence. Primarily because, up till now, those were, for the most part, the only folks willing to work with Heathens in prison. Just like the Christians who “find Jesus in jail,” it is no different with Pagans. Many come to their chosen faith after incarceration. And as there is such limited access and information, they learn from those already inside, who learned from those already inside, who learned from those (with agendas) willing to come inside. I’ve seen so-called leaders of Kindreds inside who can’t even name the Nine Worlds.

donna-pullThis is exactly what I say when I meet these inmates: “I personally do not care if you are the biggest racist homophobe walking the planet. Truly I don’t. Those are your personal beliefs; you have a right to them; own that shit. Hate everyone that is not a straight white male…fine by me. But do NOT come to me and say that hammer hanging around your neck is the reason why. Your personal biases have NOTHING to do with the religion you claim to follow, NOTHING to do with the Ancestors. And for the next however many months, I’m going to use your own myths, lores and history to show you that. “

There’s been a few death threats…not from inside the walls.

That’s why you’ve seen me all over Facebook saying, “If you’re so worried about the ‘alt-right’ and all the hate crimes, why don’t you all come out from behind your computers and help me in the trenches where this starts?” Stop talking and start doing.

RHYD: It strikes me that something significant changed in the last few decades around prison work. There was a long radical (anarchist, particularly) tradition of correspondence with inmates, but it has not been as strong as before. I have also seen some work to support queer and trans inmates. But it occurs to me that this is one place Christianity beats out all other religious or social groups: solidarity with prisoners is actually written into the Bible.

That brings me to probably the most important question of all: What is needed? Both for your particular work and the Appalachian Pagan Ministry, and also to build stronger networks of support for Pagan and Heathen prisoners from outside the prisons?

Bodies and money. Blunt enough? [laughs.] Truly, in all honesty, this is growing so fast, is such a need, and I have a hard time saying no. We are in ten facilities in two states, about to add four more facilities. There is only two of us going inside. We have another volunteer who, bless his heart, is our driver. We need people to help.

I understand this isn’t for everyone. I get that. I spent my own time behind those walls, so I know what to expect. But we truly do need folks to step up. This is not a volunteer job to take lightly. You have to be committed and consistent and able to follow through. And thick skinned along with compassionate. You have to leave your judgements at the gate.

Financially we need all the help we can get. This all comes strictly out of our pockets: the car rentals, fuel, printing costs, postage, etc.. It has been asked why I do not push for State funding to help with this ministry. The answer is a simple one: I did not apply for a position with the State. We are there to serve and minister to the inmates, not to receive a paycheck from the administration. We are there out of service, not for a job. I also feel that it would affect the trust between the inmates and our volunteers if they felt we were just another correctional employee.

We also feel the same as it comes to funding from organizations. We feel that the best way to keep from being linked to anyone’s ideologies is to not take funds from them. It is the same reason we do not sell advertising on our website. We serve the inmates we work with, not a state or federal entity, not any one group or organization.

I have a real problem with overextending because I can’t say no. When an inmate looks at me with tears in his eyes, literally sobbing, and thanking us for being there, saying, “We have fought for this for 20 years! Thank you so much for being here…” how can I not do this?

RHYD: How can people volunteer or financially support your work?

If they want to volunteer inside one or more of the facilities we go to, they can either contact me through the website at or on our Facebook page

Folks can also donate thru PayPal, purchase items from our online store or go to our “How You Can Help” for other ways to help.

Editorial: An Open Letter to Pagan Leaders

MAYBE YOU’RE the high priestess of a coven or the chief druid of a grove. Or you find yourself at the head of a Pagan seminary, a news site, a blog portal, a Pagan convention, a witch tradition. Maybe you’re the owner of a publishing house or a witch-shop, a teacher of seminars or on the board of a non-profit. Or maybe you’re just an activist or a well-known writer with a huge audience. Regardless of how you got there, whether or not you ever intended to find yourself in a position of ‘leadership,’ you’re there.

I won’t talk about the responsibility such influence comes with. You probably see it already. If you’re like me, it maybe even scares you a little. You maybe didn’t ask to be here, and definitely not during the rise of far-right nationalism in the United States.

Most of you tend to lean towards the liberal end of things, and probably don’t like the new president. Maybe you voted against him, or even protested against him last weekend. You’ve also probably noticed that the people who look up to you have some pretty strong opinions about him as well.

More than likely, you didn’t start out on your path with the goal of advising people about politics and have no desire to start. If you’re a teacher or founder of a tradition, you were probably thinking you’d mostly just show people how to learn magic or talk to the gods. Or maybe you just showed up to help out and suddenly find an entire group relies on you, or started writing and found thousands of people now read you.

I’m not suggesting you change that, but I do have some things I’d like you to consider.

I won’t pretend I’ve got answers to the nightmare sweeping across the United States, the same authoritarian and racist current threatening the stability of European countries as well. I don’t have answers, but I do have insights, as do the other writers here at Gods&Radicals, and I’d like to offer some of them to you in this letter.

First, though, I’d like to suggest we consider several ways in which Pagan leaders have previously related to the government in the last few decades, and the problematic way we’ve thought about religious freedom until now.

Religious Freedom and Government Alliance

THE UNITED STATES Constitution guarantees the right of religious practice and expression free from government interference. Of course, that guarantee has never really quite been true for minority religions, so Pagans have used several strategies for expanding these protections.

Anti-discrimination lawsuits, for instance, have been quite useful in expanding the rights of witches and Pagans to practice, not just for the plaintiffs. Creating legal precedent has a powerful effect on businesses and government institutions: it can change the way they hire and treat employees, because few ever want to be sued.

However, litigation can only do so much, and often comes with negative media attention. More so, courts often require proof that the practices in question are actually-documented or prescribed practices by clergy or other religious institutions. This requirement has led to a significant move to formalize and  institutionalize Pagan belief in such a way that it would meet the requirements of the courts.

A similar strategy has been employed to aid Pagan, Heathen, and witch prisoners in US jails, soldiers in the US military, as well as the clergy who hope to serve them.  Without official doctrines and federally-recognised religious institutions attached to the beliefs in question, the government (and the courts)  often refuse to extend protections to individuals requesting them.

One negative consequence of these strategies has been an increasing move of younger people away from established Pagan groups. Many practice witchcraft because of its embrace of individual will and history of anti-clericalism; as Pagan and witch groups have become more formalised, they begin to resemble the very thing that many of us came to Paganism to escape. If you are wondering why ‘solitary’ seems to be the most common Pagan affiliation, you need look no further than the institutionalization of Pagan and witch traditions.

Another consequence is more immediate with the change in government within the United States. Many of the moves to extend religious freedom to Pagan-aligned people have the effect of giving tacit support to government policies. This is seen most in the long campaigns to get Pagan, Heathen, and now Druidic symbols on the headstones of soldiers. While it certainly is a benefit to the families of dead military personnel to see that the deceased religious practices are honored in their death, Pagans in those same traditions who deeply disagree with American foreign policy and imperialist conquest now find their own beliefs associated with the military.

And finally, religious freedom arguments have been employed in the same way by Pagan-aligned groups as they are by Christian fundamentalists, seeking the ‘right’ to discriminate against others. One need only look at the actions of the Asatru Fellowship Assembly and the defense of fascist senate candidate Augustus Sol Invictus in the name of religious freedom to see how this framework can often mirror the same Christian dominionism which now many fear in the form of Mike Pence.

The Choice Now

PAGANS HAVE BEEN AS TAKEN-IN by the belief in Liberal Democratic progress as the rest. Though some warned against trusting too much in the government for our protections and freedoms, it’s completely understandable that few of us heeded those Cassandras. Many signs seemed to point towards an increase in freedom and tolerance of all peoples and beliefs in the Western world; parallel victories such as the end of anti-sodomy laws, gay recognition in the military and gay marriage certainly suggested things might always be getting better for everyone.

And to be clear, all these strategies to increase the freedom to practice Pagan beliefs were based in good intentions. However, any good magic practioner knows that intention without discernment can lead to some unexpected–and often dangerous–consequences. Though there was likely some hubris involved in the decisions of Pagan leaders to use these strategies, I don’t intend to cast blame upon them. I’m more interested in what we can do instead, now that we find ourselves governed by a virulent strain of nationalist, dominionist, racist, and fascist ideology.

Pagans are likely in danger, some much more than others. Pagans of color, queer and trans witches, disabled and the politically-radical folks amongst us have the most reason to fear. If you are not already convinced of this, there’s little I can do to persuade you, but if you need more proof, ask them personally. They’re the most educated regarding the  sudden changes in the political climate in the United States, and I suspect some would be happy to teach you what they’ve learned.

While they will not be the first to experience suffering, white Pagans won’t be spared either, unless they choose to make certain alliances with the new government. It’s the same opportunistic option that exists for most whites; side with the powerful above you, claim the identity politics of whiteness, and you might survive. To do so, though, you’ll betray all the intersecting relationships you have with those for whom this isn’t an option.

For Pagan leaders, particularly, this would mean throwing vulnerable people under the oncoming fascist bus in order to save yourself and your groups. Such a decision might look like an attempt to preserve witch, Heathen, Druidic, and Pagan beliefs in the face of government repression, but it would also mean permanently transforming those beliefs into something none except perhaps Stephen McNallen might recognise.

Understandably, you’re probably reluctant to become politically involved right now. In fact, if you head a non-profit religious organisation, you’re barred by law from getting involved in electoral politics through your position. You’ve probably already made a habit of steering clear of all other political engagements as well. However, if there was anything to be learned from the failure of the Democratic party to defeat an unqualified tyrant’s presidential ambitions, it’s that electoral politics are no longer even useful.

Traditional political engagement isn’t necessarily what is needed, anyway. Just as the last few decades of Pagan attempts to increase religious freedom came with some unfortunate consequences, openly urging your groups towards direct political struggle now could mean serious backlash.

The best leaders follow. They listen to the people who look to them, rather than accumulating authority and power. Those of you who find yourselves in positions of influence who haven’t come to this truth likely will soon, or find your influence and relevance diminishing quite quickly. I don’t mean that as a threat: it is an inevitable process, affecting politicians, bosses, activists, and religious leaders equally.

What Can We Do?

I have suggestions, informed by my understanding of our situation and the feedback I hear from the readers of Gods&Radicals. Take them as you will, leave them if you must. As you are no doubt aware, I’m an anarchist, so I won’t be telling you what to do. I do have some requests, though, and I hope you’ll consider them.

1. Support and Defend Vulnerable People in Your Groups 

AS I MENTIONED above, certain people are more likely to be in danger now than others. This is especially true for nonwhite, gender-variant, trans, queer, disabled, and politically-radical folks. They will be in danger not just from government policies and decisions, but from what appears to be a rising tide of far-right/fascist organising.

Supporting them may mean just listening to them as they try to work through the fear and terror of this new political order. It may also require physical support, help with access to medications, legal defense, and even safe-havens.

Supporting them may also require defending them. This hopefully will not mean physical defense (though it may), but it will definitely require defending them against ideological hatred. A floodgate opened with the recent electoral campaign: it’s become ‘okay’ to degrade women, Blacks, queer, disabled, and trans people in many social circles, and this may only increase. You can weigh in on the side of vulnerable people, using your influence against rising hate.

This may mean alienating some of your audience or members of your group, some who hold rather extreme opinions about minorities. The decisions you make regarding this are vital, and will reverberate far past private and personal interactions.

2. Be Secretive, But Don’t Go Silent

THE “BROOM CLOSET” is a thing in Paganism and witchcraft, one that’s helped protect people who face discrimination for their beliefs in jobs and communities. If you’re one of the leaders I’m talking to, you’re probably already out. Please resist the urge to go back in.

A brief Google search of my own name reveals quite a bit about my polytheist, druidic, and witch beliefs, as well as my political affiliation. That puts me in obvious danger if the tolerance of our beliefs changes in this new political climate, both from Christian dominionists and alt-right fascists. After all, I am the managing editor of a left-wing Pagan publisher. That’s not gonna make me lots of friends with fascists.

Your visibility and risk may be less. It might also be more. Either way, going silent, though it might give us some modicum of protection, will cause others to do the same. It will also mean isolation of those who are looking for guidance, wisdom, and hope at times they might need it most.

There are very good reasons to keep certain practices and beliefs quiet, and silence and secrecy are core values in many traditions. Those are important, and I do advise being more cautious about what we tell the world we do. In fact, the more gregarious and self-aggrandising marketing antics of some puts many people in danger.

We can be both secretive and visible at the same time. Those of us willing to risk public attention can help draw attention away from those who need to stay out of the public eye.

3. Avoid Alliances With The Government

THE PAST THREE decades of political and legal work to gain recognition for our beliefs and traditions has come at an unfortunate cost, and that cost will only increase under a hostile government. Beyond the institutionalization which chased thousands of people into solitary and isolationist practice, it has made many groups beholden to government policy.

The situation for non-profits and religious organisations is particularly dire. Groups (including Gods&Radicals) which rely on tax-exemption to raise funds for their work or to own land where they teach, meet, or practice could be pressured to comply with new laws. In many countries and in some jurisdictions within the United States, for instance, mosques have been pressured to report on the political activities of their members. It isn’t unreasonable to see such a thing extended to other minority religions in the United States, and the consequences should be obvious.

The strategy of securing government recognition for our beliefs in order to protect ourselves may have been useful in more tolerant times under more sympathetic governments. Those times no longer exist.

4. Build Networks of Support Across Traditions

WE’RE ALL an argumentative lot, and that’s one of our strengths. But where fighting between factions turns into extreme isolation or even hatred, our fractiousness will only endanger us.

Many attempts to create inter-faith or cross-tradition institutions have been made in the last few decades. They all failed spectacularly, often because they were top-down and attempted to codify doctrine and even speak on behalf and define entire beliefs. (You may remember: I’ve helped stop several such attempts myself.)

Instead of hierarchical groups claiming authority over Paganism, we need horizontal networks of communication and mutual support. We need this more than ever, particularly to support groups more likely to be targeted than others. Such networks would insist on the complete autonomy of each group and must be founded on the two principles of mutual aid: “An injury to one is an injury to all” and “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” (For more on these principles and building solidarity networks, see this guide.)


AS WE WATCH the world we thought we knew begin to transform into a world where our beliefs are again no longer tolerated, where are fellow practioners are targeted for the color of their skin, the expression of their sexuality or gender, or their physical ability, we must take seriously the influence we’ve accumulated.

Whether you ever meant to be seen as a leader or a guide, you’re there now.  What you do with that influence will matter greatly, both to those who look to you for help and those outside looking to harm.

Imbolc comes upon us very soon. What is that Brighid teaches more than anything else, except that we need the light of others by which to see?

Be that light, please.


Rhyd Wildermuth

img_0967Rhyd’s a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He writes here and at Paganarch, or you can also read about his sex life on Fur/Sweat/Flesh, or see his oft-shirtless selfies and read his near-daily “Anarchist Thought of the Day” on Facebook. You can also support him on Patreon. He lives nomadically, likes tea, and probably really likes you, too.


Like this piece? You will probably love our print and digital publications, including our journal A Beautiful Resistance and Christopher Scott Thompson’s new book, Pagan Anarchism! Find out more here.

 

 

 

Crafted Recordings Podcast Episode 14: Pagan Anarchism with C.S. Thompson

The first book published by Gods & Radicals was the very worthy Pagan Anarchism by C.S. Thompson. This episode features an interview with the author, discussing the context of his book.

“What I see as the crisis of the modern world is that we are trained, if not brainwashed, to see the world as being dead. Dead matter. Not infused with spirit. And so, because of this mentality which was shared by both the capitalist world and the authoritarian communist regimes… we have done so much damage to the environment that Earth won’t be able to sustain a complex civilization like ours for much longer if we don’t change course. So my argument is that we need to return to a conception of the world as being absolutely filled with spirit, an animistic conception of the world, which is the core idea of pagan religion.”
–C.S. Thompson,

There are several poems in the book, two of which, “To The Goddess Of The City” and “To The God Of The Wood”, were performed by Joie Grandbois for this episode. Music here is “Thieves Oil” by the fabulous Disemballerina.

Audio recording produced by James Lindenschmidt. ©2016 Crafted Recordings. Some Rights Reserved (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

With Enemies at the Gate

A Discussion Between Alexander Reid Ross and Shane Burley on Paganism and the Resistance to Fascism


SB: For people that are uninitiated, what role has paganism played in what we call the “broad fascist movement?”  What importance has it had?

ARR: Historically, I think it has had quite an impact. You don’t look at Mussolini’s attitudes, his speeches in the in the late 1910s and early 1920s and see paganism. You just don’t. You see even some atheism, and a wholesale rejection of the church’s power. And, in a way, a sort of sacralized politics that is there to replace the power of the church and the state as we know it and transform it into a total entity.

It isn’t until Hitler’s party rises out of the great depression that paganism starts to influence the fascist movement, because Hitler’s background is in Guido von Liste and people who were recreating that kind of ethnic pagan narrative in the volkish movement and out of the ultra-nationalist tendencies in Germany at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.  So it’s not intrinsic to fascism, but it did have a huge impact and it changed the game.

So today we find ourselves in the midst of all of these spiritual takes on fascism, and one of the strongest of them is paganism.  More specifically Asatru or Odinism.

My question to you would then be, we talk a lot about Asatru and Odinism and we get to the exclusionary differentialism of it, but Else Christensen who created this new weird faith, racialist paganism, came out of the anarcho-syndicalist movement. She tried to sort of racialize anarcho-syndicalism with paganism, what is your take on that?  Its so different today with ecology and paganism being the things we identify the most, but what about workerism and paganism?

SB: Well I think the first thing is it confronts the notion that fascism is synonymous with authoritarianism or with specific political choices.   That is a narrative that was obscured by the Cold War and by free market “libertarianism” in general, which wants to position itself both as anti-Left and as anti-fascist.

What it also shows is that the center of those politics has always been race, and it’s always been a sense that if you stripped away social forms you would come to an innate inequality.  That there’s something really baked into people, not just on a biological level, but in this case a spiritual level as well.

So with Elsie Christiansen, she held onto some anarcho-syndicalist ideas, but they were superficial in comparison to her underlying beliefs.  She wanted ethnocentric tribal communities, ones that came out of a mythological version of the past.  Maybe to recreate a Viking past that she believed to be true, which isn’t necessarily historically true.

It also speaks to the fact that anarcho-syndicalism was popular inside of revolutionary movements that were undefined.  So anarcho-syndicalism itself is defined as anti-fascist, I don’t think that’s debatable, but that doesn’t mean that the people who came in constellation with it were universally anti-fascist.  And today we see the same thing happening with National Anarchism because its synonymous with what Elsie Christiansen was talking about.  It’s almost identical.  But what happens is that people develop that idea after coming in contact with post-left anarchism, coming in contact with social anarchism, and coming in contact with social movements through things like Occupy, and then bringing in a right-wing populism or a right-wing understanding of the natural world.  So it’s the same interaction [between left-wing surface politics and right-wing ideas] that we have today.  Elsie Christiansen’s just happened to be uniquely focused on Odinism.

It also needs to be said that she was not a uniquely spiritual person.  She didn’t necessarily see Odinism in the way that people see Christianity traditionally.  She saw it specifically as an archetypal force to “save the white race.”  And she thought that it was going to be an injection of a “warrior spirit,” and in that way it was useful more than it was true, in the metaphysical sense, though I don’t doubt that she grew to believe that it was metaphysically true, at least in the Jungian sense.

This is also true of Odinism broadly, maybe less true of people who use the term Asatru.  For those that use the term Odinism or Wotanism it has always been much more about the effect a religion like that has rather than the actual spirituality itself.

AAR: Like the Church of the Creator.

SB: The Church of the Creator is a good example because not only does it not have a spiritual foundation, it doesn’t have a philosophical foundation either.  It has no ideas.  Its ideas are that white people are superior and must reign over others.  Creativity is just a name that’s given to a very primitive white supremacist concept.

In the modern context, and when you start seeing these strange different strands of fascist politics like the New Right in Europe and the Alt Right in the U.S., what role does paganism continue to play in the extreme right?

AAR:  For a while National Anarchism looked like something that was going to be a significant entryist trend.  It sort of fizzled out a little bit.  It was shut down.  People like Spencer Sunshine and New York City Antifa did a really good job of putting the kibosh on their attempts, at least in New York, and publicizing why that was urgent.  But you still have similar groups, like Jack Donovan’s group the Wolves of Vinland and the anti-Muslim Soldier of Odin, a sort of biker gang operation, and this group in Ukraine, the Misanthropic Division.  These sort of formations springing up, sort of like biker gangs, pretty violent seeming, in a lot of ways “anti-civ” leaning.  Drawing on a lot of those National Anarchist ideas.

Pan-secessionism is another great example.  There is also the Asatru Folk Assembly, which seems to be holding numbers, though they may have been falling off since the recent controversy.

I don’t see it as leading, though.  I don’t see Odinism or paganism as coming out in front of the new fascist movement.  Part of that is the robust resistance within pagan groups to the steps that the AFA, especially, has taken in recent months, if not years, to clarify their stance on immigration and gender.  That is sort of what it takes, recognizing where and how fascist tendencies within each of these milieu’s creeps up.  Whether it’s Odinism or whether it is the ecology movement or whether it is the workers movement.  It means identifying it and confronting it, using the internal truth of those milieus to isolate and push out the fascists so they can’t organize in them.

Can you talk a little bit about what the Left Hand Path is, what has been going on regarding Augustus Sol Invictus, and what your opinions on that are?

SB: So the Left Hand Path traditionally meant not being tied to conventional morality, and in that way it meant a sort of  “selfishness” or “self-worship.”  In a lot of ways it was associated with right-wing politics that were not necessarily racialized, but they were hierarchical and sometimes libertarian.  So you see figures, a lot of which are kind of cartoonish like Anton Salvador LaVey, who writes these silly books that plagiarize other books like Might is Right.  Its all about a will to power, its about gaining power.

With occult stuff it sometimes means gaining power through black magic, and not judging your spiritual morality on allegiance to a God since you, yourself, can be that God, in a lot of ways.  And that’s not, I don’t think, dominant in occult or pagan circles.  Traditionally, it seems like you come across a lot of people who have a strict Karmic set of ethics when it comes to those sort of things.  This idea that we should put out what we want to get in, and the Left Hand Path is often really against that.

It needs to be said really clearly that 90% of Left Hand Path people would have nothing to do with those fascist politics.  It’s very sexually libertine, so homophobic and transphobic politics have usually been out.  As have Traditionalist gender roles, those are often gone.

But I think, someone like Augustus Sol Invictus is the logical ideological conclusion of these things.  It makes perfect sense.  His entire notion has been about regaining a sort of warrior power, one that takes power over others.  Augustus Invictus’ actually spirituality is pan-European.  What he believes is that different European pantheons of Gods are different names for the same Gods, but culturally interpreted.  So he would like to return to something closer to pagan Rome.  Which is something that people like Richard Spencer (Alt Right leader) probably have a fondness for too.  Though I don’t think that they believe in literal pagan Gods in the way that August Invictus does.

So I think that those circles have that element, and after all his negative publicity he has been pretty much expelled from pagan circles.  But there is also a reckoning inside of paganism, broadly.  Its not just Heathenry or Left Hand Path.

Obviously, inside of Heathenry it’s happening.  The Asatru Folk Assembly finally drew a line in the sand by saying that they were for “white children,” that they stand for traditional gender roles, and also showing support for the Soldiers of Odin.  Asatru Alliance and the Odinic Rite, which is one of the largest Odinist specific groups, are all of the “folkish” camp, but every other Heathen group has admonished them, saying that Heathenry is for everybody.   That’s happening inside Left Hand Path circles too.  They’re having a reckoning.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t personally find parts of Left Hand Path stuff problematic.  I always have.  I think that there is a problematic element anytime your sense of ethnics is based on a “might is right” concept.  I think that has what you see on a macro-modern scale in fascist movements.

It means that for those in pagan circles you have to look at the core ideas of why you are there, which is incredibly challenging.  For Heathenry specifically, the entire theology, the philosophy that has been constructed to give it depth, has been done by racists.  That work has been done, historically, was done by nationalists.  It’s not true of Celtic paganism, Wicca, and a lot of other traditions.  But for Reconstructionist Germanic paganism, the reason it was reconstructed was to embolden a national identity.  It was reconstructed out of a romantic nationalism.  That was its entire function for being, so it’s harder to decouple that, but absolutely not impossible.

There is a lot of other, even Traditionalist reasons, to join Heathenry that is not necessarily of that racist tradition.  For example, start by looking at the use of archetypal Gods and decouple that from the older racial doctrines.  What underlies this fascist interpretation of Heathenry was that archetypes were racial.  So that Odin, and Thor, and Freyja were the racial ideas of the collective unconscious of Aryan people.  But if you take away that notion and say no, the Gods themselves are archetypal spiritual concepts, but they aren’t unique to racial groups, and say instead they are unique to personalities, you have a concept that underlies a lot of Universalist Heathenry.  That on its own is a real challenge to the folkish ideas that run underneath many of those more problem groups.

AAR: You could argue that in books like Man and His Symbols that Jung actually goes in that Universalist direction rather than in a racial one.

SB:  Modern Jungianism is much more indebted to things like feminist Goddess worship.  Its walked away from those racial ideas, because the racial science that inspired them has been completely discredited.  And so has most of these racist spiritual ideas, they have not proven justifiable.

Even for anti-racist pagans, one of the things that drive it is a quest for pre-modern folkways.  For a lot of people the idea of centering on a tradition that you have a history with because you have a history with it has some problematic associations.   Eclectic paganism that takes pieces from non-white cultures is also often identified as problematic for its cultural appropriation.  What answers do you have for people who are on this search and both believe that these spiritualties are not rooted in their genetics and hold critiques of cultural appropriation?

AAR: That’s a good question.  It goes back to me personally, and I’ve always hung out with people that are very spiritual, and I’ve always been close to people with these ideas, but I’ve always been agnostic.  An agnostic leaning atheist, or an atheist leaning agnostic.  So, it’s difficult for me to provide advice to other people about it since I have such a different association with spirituality.

I do think that in my experience, the people I have been able to have affinity with, have been people who have generally opened up their identity and beliefs to all different kinds of people.

On the cultural appropriations side of things, the most important thing is to have a lot of respect for other cultures’ autonomy and sovereignty.  In the 19th Century, the “spiritual awakening,” a lot of that happened because of colonialism.  They were bringing in new spiritual ideas from areas that had been colonized.  So there was an influx of Native shamanic ideas imported from America or Brazil.  These Hindi ideas from India and the subcontinent, which was an English colony at the time.  The fascination with African masks, and other spiritual pieces that were seen as mystical oddities.  So this sort of eclectic fascination was, in a way, a result of the parasitic spirit of colonial Europe in the late 19th century.

People like Renee Guenon, the far-right Traditionalist thinker, tried to say, “No, what we’re saying is ‘modernism’ isn’t that cool and we think Sufism is really interesting.  And Islam is really interesting.”  Back then it was much more open than it is today, for a variety of reasons.

Of course, their assessments of these things were very partial, very Orientalist.  They were trying to make an effort to open up the modern sensibilities of Europe to other ideas that could, in some ways, be more creative.  Or an “exit strategy” to the factory system or scientific thinking that was, at the time, very racist.  And remains, in many ways, innately white supremacist.

So its possible to have this sort of open minded respect for other spiritualties, and how, in some ways, when you read about them they are sort of integrated into your life.  That is what happens when you read a book.  That is what happens when you learn about different traditions.  It’s easy to go way too far and to all of a sudden think that you’re some kind of Druidic or Dervish wonder.  And a lot of that is just based on racist interpretations of people one never encounters.  So I think the advice I would have would be to keep an open mind in regard to other spiritual practices, without taking things too far and adopting these practices as if they were one’s own, when in fact the relationship is just not there.  And all the baggage of white supremacy and privilege weighs down the interpretation.

A lot of that goes back to the big palingenisis word, which I think you were sort of breaking the issue down to.  This desire to go back to a pre or post-modern period, a return to something that happened before and could re-manifest as a renaissance or a reawakening for all people.  I wonder, to what extent, you see paganism in things like the bioregionalist movement or in various Traditionalist sects.

My question is to what extent does paganism play a role in the modern fascist movement?  How are those two things the same, and how are they different?

SB: On the one hand, it’s artificial because Traditionalism, in the Evolian sense, rejected neo-paganism.  It rejected it completely because it lacked the chain of initiation and thought that traditions could only be “true” if they could be traced back.  So the only major modern pagan traditions that they thought were valid were Hinduism and Shinto, and various constellations and other smaller religions.  Shinto itself had a uniquely Japanese context, but they thought Hinduism descended from an ancient, Indo-Aryan white tribe.  So they thought that Hinduism was a white, ethnic religion.

Traditionally, while Evola might have venerated European paganism, he thought it was useless nature worship.

AAR:  Right. Anarchic, in fact.

SB:  So its not Traditionalist in any way.  There’s an irony about this when you look at some of these journals that either claim Heathenry or claim Traditionalism.  TYR is a good example.  Michael Moynihan edits it, and it describes itself as a “journal of radical Traditionalism.”  Colin Cleary, who wrote The Gods Who Summon and What is a Rune?, published by the white nationalist publishing house Counter-Currents, also edits it.  Those two books are very complicated studies of heathenry on the one hand, and really complicated looks at people like Heidegger on the other.  It gives the sense of depth when it comes to these traditions, relaying the idea that Heathenry is not just symbolism but instead has a deep underlying philosophy.

But what you see in places like Tyr are discussions about Evola, and specifically republishing of Evola, and then, in the very next article, discussions on what it means to be an Odinist.  These two ideas are in very clear contradiction with each other, since Evola’s Traditionalism excluded heathenry.  What is not in contradiction, however, is the racism implicit in both ideas.  So that is where they are able to find a common idea, it is not in the Heathenry or in the Traditionalism.  That’s the defining quality of journals like Tyr; it’s the reactionary politics and social views.  This is true of the spirituality of the whole New Right, or Alt Right as it were today in America.

So Traditionalism is a great sounding label they use, and they can point to really big and complicated books that cite it as a key influence, but many of the people using the term are not Traditionalists in any way that you would normally understand it (Not that there is anything to be proud of there anyway.).

So, the people who run the Traditionalist Workers Party are both Orthodox Christians as well as Presbyterians.  These have been the most public religious affiliations mentioned, though there may be others.  They have also had some involvement by National Anarchist, which is part of their conscious recruitment of skinheads, many of which are identifying as Odinists or with Asatru.  Matthew Heimbach, the leader of the Traditionalist Workers Party and the Traditionalist Youth Network, had a lot of respect for those beliefs (even though he is an Orthodox Christian) because he sees them as folkish religions.  He disagrees, he thinks that Christ is for everyone, but he understands and respects the attempt of moving towards a pre-modern folkway.  What he likes to say is that “modernity ruins everything,” and will ruin your paganism too.

So, one thing that you said is that Odinism is not going to be out front of the Alt Right or new fascist movement, but I think that it will be behind it.  I no longer think that there is going to be a dominant faction of religious pagans, but I think it will always be the clothing that they choose to wear.  It’s what they want to bring into their holiday celebrations.  It’s in the music they prefer, genres like neofolk.  There are even neofolk bands playing at the National Policy Institute conference the last couple of years.  What they talk about a lot if that they want to reclaim those traditions even if they don’t believe in it religiously.  They think that it represents an authentic, European theological and philosophical rebirth.

So in that way they are traditional pagans, because a large part of the modern pagan movement has used paganism as a tool to reclaim things that are “para-spiritual.”  That may be true of any religion, a lot of people return to traditional Christianity because they want a certain type of family or memory about their past.  A lot of people turn to paganism because of the desire for connection, maybe with nature and history.  So its not disingenuous in any way, but what many of the nationalists are now starting to say that they are not really religious pagans but paganism is how I think of myself in an identitarian way.

That’s true of the European New Right as well.  What Alain de Benoist was arguing in On Being a Pagan was not arguing that we should literally believe in them, but that they were archetypes for European people.  Someone like Stephen McNallen, on the other hand, would agree with his analysis of where these Gods come from, but also believes that they are literally true.

AAR: But they are sort of a metaphor.  A sort of story that we tell ourselves.

SB: And that is a sort of Evolian concept as well, the beliefs that myths were true only in a sense.  That’s why in his anti-Semitism he knew that the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion was a fabrication, but he said it didn’t matter because it was a myth that proved itself true.

AAR: And that is perhaps why people like Moynihan, or Troy Southgate, can claim Evola and paganism.  While the Traditionalism and the paganism are incommensurate, in some ways paganism becomes one of those mytho-poetic things that can reinforce Traditionalism even though they are at odds.

SB:  It is kind of like the left-right synthesis, because they are at odds, but they are both “anti-imperial” or have other types of surface level agreement.  They are both, theoretically, “against the modern world.”

Satanism is a great example too.  What does Satanism, in any way, have in common with Asatru? Or have in common with Rene Guenon’s understanding of Sufism?  Absolutely nothing.  There is no correlation, whatsoever, other than maybe a valoration of strength.

AAR: And people like Anton LaVey saying that Odinism was a Satanic idea.

SB: It’s more of a cultural force to say, “we reject your world.”  It’s more of a cross-religious alliance, really.  And then when those spiritual ideas mingle enough they end up having ideological crossover, because they develop theory together.  Whenever people take spiritual ideas like this seriously, it develops a body of philosophy that pairs with it and progresses on and further develops.  No matter what the intentions are, when these different spiritual paths mingle enough they begin to meld together, in some ways.

AAR:  Isn’t there an idea that Satanism itself is a sort of paganism?  That Satan himself was ushered into the Christian religion later on through the church, not so much through the scriptures, as this Pan God.  This Demi God.  Cloven hooves, horns, the “God of fun.”

SB:  It goes back to this anti-Semitic caricature that has come back into resurgence.  It is sort of a Gnostic idea that Yahweh, the Jewish God, was a sort of demon.  That is where the Alt Right joke of the Jewish “Volcano God” comes from.  It’s close to the ideas of Esoteric Hitlerism and Miguel Serrano that the Jewish God is a demiurgic demon that has taken over the Earth.  It was the Jewish ethnic God who has taken over, and dethroned, all other Gods, so whites must reclaim their ethnic Gods to fight their demonic, lesser God.  Though a few probably believe that narrative literally true, it is often believed on the radical right as metaphorically true.   And a lot of the Alt Right seems to believe that metaphorically, that the Jewish religion is evil and their religious values have basically colonized the rest of the world and made whites work against their interests, which were conscious when they were manifested in their Nordic ethnic Gods.  This drives from really deep Nazi anti-Semitism that says that the power for Jews to destroy Western man comes deep in their race and religion.

AAR:  Sure, it was even Jared Taylor who went on one of those podcasts to say that he thought there was a case to be made that the Jew had a plan to take down Western Civilization, and that it should be looked into and taken seriously.

SB: Because Christianity has waned on the far right, there is this idea that Christianity is a Jewish disease has permeated their ranks.  The alternative to that would then be a white ethnic religion.  In that sensibility, the image of Lucifer as a “God insulted” or a deity that has been lied about by Judeo-Christianity is a Gnostic idea because it is reinterpreting the scriptures to mean its opposite.  There is theistic Satanist groups that do believe that, like The Order of Nine Angels and the Joy of Satan, which believe something similar.  It also has an underlying idea that Jewish religion made universal through Christianity tells people to behave altruistically or with forgiveness when instead we should be exerting force to destroy our enemies to create a white empire.  That is one of the key aspects of Satanic fascism, which is about rejecting Jewish ideas of compassion and reclaiming a warrior spirit.

AAR:  How should pagans interact with this tacit theme of “the Judeo-Christian menace,” rationalism, legalism, etc?  These different sorts of catchwords ascribed to Judeo-Christian ideas, as if there is a pure lineage of oppression from Christianity that has to be overcome.  How can pagans interact with some of the anti-Semitic themes that are often in this discourse of rejecting Christianity’s modern influence?

SB: I think if paganism is a sort of “protest vote” for you, then it might be important to look at what the protest vote is against.  There are these workshops that I have seen going around with names like “Decolonizing Whiteness,” which are problematic in some ways, but also come from a real place of Christianity’s colonial history in Europe as well as the rest of the world.  Take Mjonir, the Thor’s hammer pendant, which became really cemented in heathen culture after Christianity was cemented in the Nordic world, barring Christians from trading with heathens.  It was then that Mjornir was used by Vikings to show allegiance to the Old Gods rather than this new imperial religion.  There’s an impulse now to maintain that narrative, a resistance to Christianity’s colonizing effect.

What often happens, however, is that some people will use that idea as a tool to say “We are victims imperialist colonialism too, just like people of color.”  And that is a factually untrue idea.  It doesn’t’ mean that there wasn’t an imperialist history of Christianity in Europe, but it does not have a comparable history and ongoing legacy that white colonialism has in the global South.

What paganism can act as, for some, is a form of spirituality that is just untainted.  A lot of people discuss the switching to Yule celebrations instead of Christmas because when they were growing up Christmas was a time when you went to a scary church with violent rhetoric with abusive family members.  That was a very unhappy holiday.  But we still want a Winter holiday, and since paganism is such a reconstructed religion, it is often people reconstructing something for themselves that is unique to their needs and condition that may be without some of the baggage of their earlier experiences of religion.  Also having something that feels old can be important and therapeutic.

So having a clear idea of what you are doing and why can help to avoid that problematic dimension.  If the problem with Christianity is that it is Judaic in origin, or that it is universalist or destructive to nations, then it is a problem no matter what religion it is tied to.  That is true of Atheism as well (New Atheism especially).  What drives a lot of those far right critiques of Christianity is that the religion is problematic because of its own internal logic, a criticism that I think is patently untrue.

Also, whether or not the value systems implicit in a person’s paganism are shared with the more questionable avenues is worth exploring.  Sometimes I will walk into a pagan or New Age shop, and you will see some Asatru items, and a lot of Wiccan stuff, and various Welsh, Celtic, and other items.  And then all of a sudden you will see a Baphomet, or stuff for the Temple of Set.  The ideological, philosophical, and spiritual core of those religions could not be more different.  It would be like having statues to Satan inside of a Christian bookshop because Christians believe in Satan.  We shouldn’t revel in those contradictions anymore, we should be spiritually consistent.  We reject “Might is Right” logic seen in a lot of left-hand path religions.  If you have a warrior dimension in your pagan spirituality and that means that it is a ferocious spirit against the challenges of life, then great.  But that is worlds away from a warrior spirit whose manifestation is domination over others, yet both spiritual philosophies are often represented inside of pagan spaces since they have similar iconography and myths.  I think drawing those lines and saying “we believe this, but we do not believe that” is the kind of consistency that really blocks out problematic elements.

AAR:  Yeah, for example, indigenous warrior societies in North America who are resisting oil pipelines.  They are going up against police in very serious ways, though blockades, and other actions.  It can be associated with a kind of warrior identity, but it is not an authoritarian and hierarchical warrior character that takes their power on top of the peasantry. Instead with fascist warrior spiritual image, the kind that Evola invoked regularly, it is about fighting to enforce a caste structure of the wolves over the sheep.

It was very baked into the Years of Lead in the 1970s, where Evolian terrorists were going around bombing civilian sites, infrastructure and what not, in order to act out this kind of fantasy of the warrior spirit.  What would later become known as the “political soldier.”  And it is really in that realm that Roberto Fiore from Terza Posizione went up to England to escape charges for bombing the Bologne train station, which was the worst act of terrorism during the Years of Lead.  I think they killed over 80 people.  In England he was sheltered by Michael Walter of the National Front, with Patrick Harrington and Nick Griffin (former leader of the British National Party) they formed the Political Soldier faction of the National Front.  This later became known as the Official National Front, a sort of splinter group.  They were the ones who were recruiting the skinheads.

Through that time period, the mid to late 1980s, Blood and Honor came about, the racist skinhead movement was shipped from England to German and France and the United States.  That’s why even white nationalist skinheads have these weird crossover spiritualties between Odinism, Creativity, and hard line Christianity.  The warrior culture was for them a tool to reclaim their belief that they were the authority in an oppressive social structure.

SB:  What this conversation brings me back to the Wolves of Vinland.  They have gotten a lot of attention in pagan circles because they have an evolving tradition; they define their own specific spirituality.  A lot of Heathens get criticizes for their reconstructionist use of ancient rituals, which some critics like to call “reenactments.”  The Wolves of Vinland instead try to do their own thing, like the funeral to Baldur they hold every year where they ritualistically set a wooden boat on fire.  It is a unique tradition, they develop the rituals themselves, and they have their own evolving esoteric understanding of what they call “tribal spirituality.”  They often discuss it as an effort to embody the “Germanic hero aesthetic.”  They use the Gods in a way that secularly would be a sort of inspiration, but in a spiritual sense it would be a type of “becoming.”  Through the rituals and folkways they hope to internalize the spirit of Odin, which is the name for this kind of Germanic spirit based on the acquisition of knowledge and the discovery of power.

I think that that idea, when decoupled from its obviously problematic aspects, is actually one that is very striking and attractive in pagan circles.  On the one hand, it is a very well thought out form of mysticism, and it provides a very fresh reading of the lore.  So when we talk about the warrior culture, embodying the spirits of those Gods and stories does not have to be done in this oppressive way and can instead be spun into a positive, and maybe even revolutionary, context.

You see in paths like the Reclaiming Tradition, the effort to take stories about care and community, especially between women, the inspiration that you live out in your own life.  In a way its unquestionably true since it is putting a name, in this case Gods or spirits, on a quality that is very much alive in people’s communities.  It gives people an image to meditate on, to decide they want to bring it into their own life.  In that way it can be incredibly empowering, it can be the opposite of the way the far right attempts to co-opt those myths.

You see that with Circle Ansuz, the anarchist Heathen collective that was very big on taking the Viking warrior culture and using it to fight for a just community.  It was a war against reactionary forces, a war against inequality and fascism.  That kind of “warlike feature” was not baked in implicit violence and oppression, and instead seems like the concept of “spiritual warfare,” the war we have in our lives to become the better version of ourselves.

That’s not unique to paganism either; you see it in a lot of left-wing Christianities. There, the concept of salvation is really critical to overcoming oppression, on the one hand, but also overcoming yourself, and finding the best way to live your life.

AAR:  “I have come not to bring you peace, but a sword.” It has been interpreted various ways, of course, but there’s an obvious sort of militant aspect to that sort of evangelism.

I think the one person that we have really sort of passed over in this discussion is Alexandr Dugin.  Talk about your spiritual warfare!  Dugin, like no one else, has been on top of these themes.  War, sacrifice, violence.  Also couched in the language of National Conservatism, which is a trend I have seen increase in recent years. Especially with people like Gianfranco Fini the Italian post-fascist. Dugin is sort of post-fascist with his own idea of the “Fourth Position.” This idea that you have had democracy, communism, and fascism, they have all gone by the wayside, and we are all scrambling to piece together this Phoenix rising from the ashes that will truly embody the human spirit.  They are trying to dance around the fact that it is just repackaged fascism.

Dugin’s big concept is geopolitics, and he has a similar sort of openness to intersecting occult far-right ideas, kind of like people such as Michael Moynihan. Where he takes what he needs to get his own idea of power and tradition.

SB:  I see Alexandr Dugin as the new Rasputin. Sort of the empire’s mystic.

As has been reported, Dugin has switched his focus from Evolian Traditionalism to Chaos Magick.  On its simplest level, Chaos Magick often takes on the power of specific thinking.  If we create our own reality, then maybe we can give ourselves spiritual placebos directly into our own subconscious.  You do sigil work, maybe that sigil will go deep into your subconscious and become manifest.  Perhaps you do a hyper sigil, maybe a piece of fiction that you want your life to become and you put your energy into it.  Some of it is undeniably true; if you envision your goals then you are more likely to manifest it.  Then there is the harder edge version that sees it more magically, and it is that harder edge that Dugin seems to be invested in.  And some of that banks up on the “Might is Right” occult perspective.

The dividing line I have often heard from occultists is if you believe there is no moral consequence for your magical behavior.  Most people do, for example, the Wiccan Rede of “Do what thou whilt, but harm none.”  Instead, in Thelema’s Book of the Law, written by Aliester Crowley, it just says “Do what thou whilt.”  That is a massive philosophical distinction.  The Left Hand Path religions would call the Right Hand Path ones beholden to false morality, we do not believe in those responsibilities because we don’t believe in your false Gods.  That would seem to be the angle that Dugin is taking, seeing that he simply wants to claim power.  A Will to Power.  He is invested then in whatever tradition he believes will give him power over others.

In some ways, it shows that this Will to Power may be a key part of the Left Hand Path tradition broadly, and it outlines why it bothers me when people focus only on  Invictus’ racism.  Augustus Invictus is a racist by anyone’s standards. But is he completely invested in this racialist understanding of the world? Probably not.  But that is not the only thing that is important.  The racism is the low hanging fruit.  We can almost always agree that racism is atrocious and needs to be confronted, both interpersonally and systemically.  What we cannot seem to agree on is the myriad of other aspects of their politics that are problematic. Their views on gender. Their view of bodies, how they want to wipe out fat and differently abled bodies. Invictus hits this hierarchical and unequal view of the world in a whole host of ways, with race only being a small part of his overall worldview.

This makes it an intersectional fascism. It is about finding all the ways you can have an oppressed identity and then creating a reactionary opposition to progress on the lines of that identity. If it is gender, it is the Men’s Rights movement. If its bodies, it is about valorizing a specific body ideal.  With someone like Dugin, it is about maintaining oppression and hierarchies wherever they arise.  At least he is more honest about it: he wants to build those hierarchies under himself.  He wants to be at the center of this, it is not a universalist politic.  Invictus is honest about this in some ways as well in that he admits that his vision of an oppressive warrior empire is something that would benefit himself, not necessary most people in the world.  He thinks he would do pretty well in that type of world.  So I think that Dugin represents a strange philosophical current that is all about Will to Power, and ties in those other reactionary ideas about maintaining inequality and hierarchy.

The racism is obvious, but if you focus on more than just the racism you start to see that there is a whole complex ideological undercurrent that, even if they tone down the racism, is still frightening.  It also shows that fascists expand beyond just the racism.  Their ideology is larger and more pervasive than many have considered because the logic of it has been baked into different counter-cultural circles that no one has analyzed and identified.  If your spiritual idea is to institute a Will to Power dominance over others, if you believe human beings are not all equal, and you believe that hierarchy is a natural structure, then you are holding a fascist politic no matter how you color it.

What do you think a way for pagans to really confront these issues would be?

AAR:  You have to go where you’re most powerful.  I’ve talked to some people from Anti-Racist Action, and they would confront Nazis on the street and say, “You have to get out of here.”  But there would be five of them, and one Nazi.  They would carry a point, not just one Baldie going up against five white power skinheads.  That’s suicide.  Similarly, you don’t want to be the one person jumping into a hall full of Nazis.  You have to get people together, and you have to do that where your interests already lie and where you power is.

So it is important for pagans to turn around and have a real reckoning about who is in this movement, why they are here, and what to do about it.  Getting events shut down when people like Augustus Sol Invictus are speaking at them, especially when venues are not responding to community concerns.  It is not going to work every single time, but there is an opportunity there to build a community against this trend, and that is really important.

Marginalizing and isolating the Asatru Folk Assembly, and groups like it, is an important thing.  This can play out in a number of ways.  People could show up to AFA gatherings and try and disrupt them.  Earth First!, the radical environmental movement, had a real right-wing pitch to it I the early 1980s.  This got turned around in the late 1980s for a number of reasons, one of which was that some anarchists from Olympia calling themselves Alien Nation went down to an Earth First! meeting and started blaring rap music and confronting and getting in arguments with people.  Edward Abbey came up to antagonize them, calling them “sissies” and stuff like that.  They just argued with him until he was blue in the face and finally left defeated.  Later that night there was a “Buckaroo Squad” that went through the camp, cracking bullwhips and yelling homophobic slurs, and trying to intimidate people.  That behavior really exposed them, it made them look terrible.  There was an article published in the Earth First! Journal, and elsewhere, talking about what happened and exposing the right-wing kernel.  It created a huge rift in the movement itself.  Soon after that Edward Abbye died, Dave Foreman went to jail, and there was an opening that allowed IWW member Judi Bari to become one of the most important leaders of the movement.  This was a 180-degree turn around from the politics that came before.

So these anarchists who agreed with ecological politics but didn’t like the right wing actually influenced the course of the movement.  That can still happen in Asatru as well; these kinds of disruptions are valuable as long as you are staying safe.  The main point is that it does need to be confronted in the pagan movement itself.  The wrong thing to do is the over-the-top, optimistic revolutionary program that often seems so appealing for those on the fringe.  “We just need to put aside our differences and realize that we don’t like ‘liberal multiculturalism’ or ‘Judeo-Christian ethics,’ and that is what we need to smash first, and then have the reckoning after we accomplish that.’  It is that kind of logic that allowed fascism to begin in the first place.

This was the type of arguments that people like Georges Sorel and Charles Maurras used to say, that ‘some are from the left, some are from the right, and we can mince words about these differences after the revolution.  Then we can differentiate ourselves territorially.  But for the time being we need to overthrow liberal democracy, which we all hate.’  That is the synthesis of fascism.  It is left and right meeting together to attack liberal democracy.

The left needs to recognize the right as an equal or greater threat.

SB:  It is also the right taking over the left.  Using left wing tools and structures to express right wing values.

AAR:  A lot of those values that we think of as essentially left are not.  Our assertions that the left wing is about working class struggle aren’t necessarily completely accurate.  I think Donald Trump is a great example of how right-wing struggle can also be about identifying as working class.  There’s obviously a racialized difference between left and right there, but sometimes it is harder to see.  That is the murky area of authoritarianism and elitism and other interpersonal dynamics that the left needs to focus on.  Because, similar to Christianity and Judaism and paganism, Marxism and anarchism and green politics, can all contain authoritarian personalities that can take over and take pretty strong groups in radically bad directions, which have significant crossover with fascists.  If not becoming outright fascist themselves.

Last, but not least, there’s question as to a fascist group or a fascist movement.  Even if something like the Workers World Party is clearly identifying itself as a left-wing party, when they are attending a conference that is put on by fascists and organizations like the League of the South, whether or not they identify with the left is irrelevant.  The real question is if they are willing to take part in a fascist movement.  The real question is which side are they on.

So for pagans it’s important to associate with the politics of the left, which I see as generally a belief in equality that traverses class, race, sex, and gender.  And it is important to subvert authoritarianism even when (or especially when) it’s for the sake of equality.

SB: One thing I might add, one of the strongest things inside of paganism or just in general is to have a serious and developing understanding of racism.  One of the key things that will undermine fascist entryism is the ability to counter their narratives, to undermine their arguments.  And you do this by having a strong anti-racist perspective even independent of fascist threats.  It is also good to develop that politic through discussion and forgiveness of errors, because that way you can develop a really keen sense of the problems.  Right now, with the way that fascists have forced entry into pagan spaces, it would be almost impossible for a pagan who has been involved in this community for 20 years to have never have had an association with someone who turned out to be pretty problematic.  Or to not have ever come across these ideas.  So it is going to be an ongoing process of hashing out what a strong anti-racist politic looks like in this context.

Also having consistency, which is something we lack in both politics and spirituality, is important.  To analyze the positions we have taken, to understand why we have made certain choices, to challenge ourselves, and to have a clear understanding of where our beliefs and actions come from.  When we talk about the left-right crossover that fascism relies on, often times the left takes on problematic ideas from the far right without even realizing it, and does it uncritically.

We see this even in anti-racist circles; they can take on the behavior of ethnic nationalism.  Some of the ways that we talk about issues like cultural appropriation; we do not see the long-term ideological assumptions this can maintain.  It is good to present the question of whether the choices we are making are in line with a well thought out anti-racist belief structure, rather than one that essentializes race, creates strong divides between ethnic groups, and is antithetical to a multicultural society.

I think that is something that is tough, and is instead an ongoing process.  It is continuing to develop, and we do not have every answer.  Right now we have anti-racist ideas emerging, and we are trying things out and making mistake.  If you have a real investment in these issues it means being willing to make those mistakes.

AAR:  Yeah, I think the left has shot itself I the foot somewhat with spirituality.  There is a real pugnacious tendency to write it off entirely, and that alienates a lot of people who have beliefs or are soul-searching or going through different stages in their lives or are committed to a spiritual movement.  They end up seeing the left as almost an enemy, because who is really representing the left?  Is it Maoists?  Is it Marxist-Leninists?  Or is it even hostile materialist anarchists?  Because there is a lot of hostility in leftists against questions of faith.

In a way you can see it transplanted onto left wing politics, as left wing politics become sacralized.  It becomes about sacrifice.  It becomes about “good faith vs. bad faith?”  It becomes about determinant course of the universe that you have “tapped into” and “understand completely,” with a problematic sense of certainty about all political or social issues.  So it is easy for the left to become a religion, and dogmatic, while writing off less dogmatic, and often more interesting, spiritual tendencies.  I think that is a real dilemma.

So I think that there is an opportunity for pagans to carve out niches in the left against these other attitudes that can be driven by right wing impulses.  And I do that it is important, at the end of the day, to activate that universality that would enable alliances on the left, in terms of equality as it really happens and not just an abstract notion.  That means that, for me, the more differentialist ideas, according to race or place of birth, distill an “essential” pattern, and a traditional and exclusionary field of identity that is a problem.  Those “essentialist identity” ideas have pretty negative implications in the long term.  I don’t deny that unique cultures exist in different places.  And I also don’t deny that they share a lot in common when they are held up against one another.  I just don’t think that this synchronism of “they’re all the same” work, and I also don’t think that they are all so radically different that cross-participation is intrinsically colonial.  I think there has to be an opening for exchange on an equal and just level.  Which is why I think that the white supremacist application of cultural appropriation arguments, which you see in things like the AFA and with Stephen McNallen, is clearly in line with fascism.


Shane Burley

Shane Burley is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer based in Portland, Oregon. His work as appeared in places such as In These Times, Truth-Out, Labor Notes, Waging Nonviolence, CounterPunch, and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory. He contributed a chapter on housing justice movements to the recent AK Press release The End of the World As We Know It?, and has work in upcoming volumes on social movements. His most recent documentary Expect Resistance chronicles the intersection of the housing justice and Occupy Wallstreet movement. His work can be found at ShaneBurley.net, or reach him on Twitter at @shane_burley1.

Alexander Reid Ross

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab and a contributor to Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency. His new book, Against the Fascist Creep, was released by AK Press earlier this year.


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The Myth of the Pagan Passcard

By Pegi Eyers

(As a “manifesto” addressed to white folks in Pagan Community, my sincere apologies to people of colour or mixed heritage who may feel excluded.)


The diversity in Pagan Community in the Americas is astounding, and as a much-needed alternative to outdated religions in decline, an ongoing source of wonder for our collective re-enchantment and inspiration. Every conceivable genre of paganism is thriving, and this healthy diversity has meant the suspension of “togetherness” or “unity” narratives in recent times (which is probably a good thing). As with all human societies, the idea that we need to be homogenous or come to any kind of agreement as a movement or a subculture is not a realistic expectation. Yet there are some social dynamics that transcend mere “opinion” or “belief” such as the consequences we live with from historical actions, and the overarching truth of our own positionality. “Who am I? Why am I here? What do I remember? Where am I going?” These timeless questions continue to underscore our complex lives here in at the end of Empire, and we encounter a similar self-searching at the heart of Pagan Community.

Moving past the brilliance, innovation and miraculous achievements of leaders, groups and solitaries alike, we come to a dire and complete disconnect between those who are schooled in social justice and those who are not. Delving into this great divide there is one question that immediately comes to mind. “Are Pagans progressive, or are we stuck in the webs of our own conditioning?” If the answer is the former, there are a few simple (and relatively painless) adjustments that we can make on how we understand reality. After all, a wider circle of wisdom can change our worldview forever!

Like so many who have been the frequencies holders (or vicious derailers) in the recent public debates on issues of white supremacy and racism, we have been shocked to witness the dialogue having real consequences in terms of personal identity, well-being and finances (not to mention ideological platforms). The initial flares have settled into a somewhat more nuanced conversation, yet blind spots remain, and these glossed-over themes are still being justified in a thousand inventive ways. By far the greatest mistake and major sidestep from accepting the truth about our own positionality, has been the ever-popular “Pagan Passcard.”

Like the One Ring of hobbit fame, or Excalibur the legendary sword of King Arthur, the schooled activist can’t help but feel an obligation to present “the click” that would right the wrongs of this erroneous thinking. So in the spirit of mutual understanding, activating a personal and collective moral compass, and initiating the equity that could lead to equality in our time, here are a few basic points on positionality (with key resources) that Pagan Community needs to know.

(1) If your ancestors are from Europe you are white. Yes, we know that the theory of “race” is a complete fabrication, and “whiteness” and the Caucasian myth need to be dismantled along with the appellations of “black” “brown” “red” and “yellow.” But until all people of colour are free from discrimination based on skin colour in a post-racial world, we who fit the “white” bill have no right to reject the term. After all, that would make us “exceptional” once again, and our cultural group has already tried that, what with dominating, oppressing and trying to get rid of people of colour through white supremacy. (Key resource ~ “The History of White People” by Nell Irvin Painter)

(2) If your ancestors are from Europe, you belong to the colonizer class. If you have Anglophone roots your people believed themselves to be “the masters of the universe” and if you are Scottish, Irish, Welsh, French, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, Germanic, Slavic, Baltic, Nordic or another European ethnicity (which evolved into “nation-states” yes we know), then your parents, grandparents and other Settlers (if applicable) joined the “white club.” Except for a few isolated groups such as Amish, Mennonites, Pennsylvania Dutch or Doukhobors, without exception all light-skinned Europeans jumped on the irresistible bandwagon of building Empire as governed by Anglophone worldviews, beliefs, memes, and lust for profit. (Key resource ~ “The History of White People” by Nell Irvin Painter)

(3) Therefore, if you are part of the colonizer class, to this day you benefit from the subjugation of the colonized. All the amenities, luxuries and benefits you receive and enjoy today come directly from the enslavement of people of colour who provided the labour to build Empire in the Americas, and from the theft of indigenous lands. If not subjected to genocide, people of colour on Turtle Island were colonized, and in these post-colonial times, we who are the descendants of the colonizers should accept the responsibility to right this wrong. (Key resource ~ “The Colonizer and the Colonized” by Albert Memmi)

(4) White privilege is not a figment of a crazy SJW’s imagination. Even if you have been raised by those at the very bottom of the economic, gender, sexual orientation or disability ladder(s), by virtue of your white skin you have huge privileges as compared to a person of colour. Do you see your own ethnicity reflected in the majority of media programming, advertising and publishing that surrounds you? Do you have any other barriers (other than economic) to renting in any neighbourhood you chose? Do you have relative freedom when going about your daily business? Do you have to worry about your teenage son being killed when he goes off to the store? In every single one of your activities or ambitions, your whiteness puts you ahead of people of colour. (Key resource ~ “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh)

(5) Newsflash! Self-identifying as Pagan, Neo-Pagan, Eco-Pagan, Devotional Polytheist, Anderson Feri, Eclectic, Kemetic, Faerie, Wiccan, Feminist Witch, Goddessian, Thelema, Hellenismos, New Orleans Vodoun, Shamanic, Neo-Shamanic, Druid, Neo-Druid, Sinnsreachd, Avalonian, Reconstructionist, Restorationist, Traditionalist, Norse Heathen, Forn Siðr, Ásatrú, European Indigenous or Animist does not give you a passcard from being a member of the colonizer class. The reason that so many in Pagan, Transformational and New Age Community are mainstream, non-liberal and non-radical folks in the first place is that they are the generational inheritors of the predominantly WASP suburban middle class. (Boom.) Also, i.e. being a good and caring person, participating in the paradigm shift, living in alternative community, belonging to the “Rainbow Tribe,” mastering oracles and magick, having an intimate connection with a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, dwelling in an animist universe, recovering the Bard Tradition, doing community service, building a Wiccan Church, learning to speak Gaelic, or creating Pagan curriculum in school systems where none existed before – all these and other “spiritually awake and aware” activities and belief systems also do not give you a passcard from being a member of the colonizer class. (Key resource ~ “Ancient Spirit Rising: Reclaiming Your Roots & Restoring Earth Community” by Pegi Eyers)

(6) Being marginalized, shamed or persecuted for being a Pagan does not give you a passcard from being a member of the colonizer class. Certainly as a new religion in the Americas, Pagans are extremely familiar with oppression along religious lines and the struggle to claim equal rights and civil liberties. But even as we celebrate and honor the freedom fighters among us, we still have white privilege, and belong to the colonizer class (see points 2, 3, 4 and 5). Without learning the truth about our own positionality and the intersectionality of oppressions, we may continue to perpetuate white supremacy and racism. (Key resource ~ “What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy” by Robin DiAngelo)

(7) White guilt is not necessary (well, maybe for a couple of days). Instead of white fragility and an endless array of inventive justifications, the best response to all this challenging new information is to take responsibility to right the wrongs of history, and to correct the horror show created by white supremacy here on Turtle Island. Good examples of this work would be activism and allyship for the rights of POC, LGBT and other marginalized groups, undoing the implicit bias or explicit racism in ourselves, and the abolition of white supremacy. (Key resource ~ “White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son” by Tim Wise)

(8) And last but not least, our final point is the one most likely to enrage. To be extremely clear about history in the Americas, the memes and methods of Empire were created and enacted by European patriarchs, the rich, rapacious, entitled, racist, privileged, greedy, misogynist, bloodthirsty, warlord, bible-thumping, immoral, power-mad and dysfunctional white men who imposed their will on our bodies, minds and souls, and dictated the destruction of our world. White men – not any other group – have monopolized the reality of our ecosphere and ethnosphere for centuries with their manipulation, lies, justifications, fear-mongering, economic traps, silencing, peer pressure, brainwashing and lateral violence. Unfortunately, even as a subordinate group white women are not off the hook, as in the total supremacy of a “man’s world” we were the supporting cast and game players who internalized the values of the patriarchy, and were complicit with the Settler-Colonial directive. And as much as white women have achieved emancipation and empowerment today, we need to realize that the benefits and privileges we experience are the direct result of Euro-supremacy, and the near-annihilation of both indigenous cultures and the land. Both white men and white women hold equal responsibility to dismantle the systems of oppression. Simply put, with their humancentric worldview of entitlement, dominance and psychopathy the patriarchal founders and robber barons of Empire were wrong. (Key resource ~ “The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege” by Robert Jensen)

“In addition to the movements of the soul, deep group loyalty is actually what many human beings have used as their barometer for good and evil, and this group census and support actually serves as a collective conscience. Many of the horrible (and heroic) acts of humanity have been supported by some form of this group conscience. The genocide of Native Americans in the United States, and the slave trade, were both approved within a group.”

 

(Francesca Mason Boring, Connecting to Our Ancestral Past: Healing Through Family Constellations, Ceremony, and Ritual, North Atlantic Books, 2012)

Subtle and systemic, the racist values, stereotypes and microaggressions of the white patriarchy have been part of the education of every person born in the Americas, and it is this web of conditioning we need to unpack in our adult lives. Even as members of Pagan subculture(s) and communities, the inconvenient truth is that we benefit from being members of the dominant white supremacist society. Coming to terms with this fact is definitely a turning point, and staying grounded can be hard when the world we thought was real turns out to be an elaborate sham. Yet absorbing this new information takes absolutely nothing away from our self-identity or ongoing life purpose, but adds another layer of meaningful engagement with the world. In addition to our ongoing work in the realms of magic, spirit and culture, the best response is to shift to a social justice awareness, as every action (whatever the scale) can add to the impact of anti-oppression. With all the connective and educational tools available to us today, there is no shortage of information on engaging with protest, grassroots organizing, solidarity with marginalized groups, and effective allyship.

As Pagans we want to live in a world that reflects our egalitarian values, a world free of racial stratification, and where everyone has the right to realize their potential. And we want to believe that this equality will happen in our lifetime. There is a very real possibility that it is our generation – the most privileged and wealthy in human history – that has the most work to do in dismantling the systems that oppress both humanity and the earth. Trying to make amends is part of our own search for wholeness, and together we can co-create solidarity cultures of love and mutuality. To support and nurture each other across cultural or color lines, we need to be tough on issues yet compassionate with people. And as dismantling the toxicity of racism may take a long time, we need to celebrate our successes, value our contributions along the way, and be nurtured by our own earth-connected and Pagan spiritual practices.

Walking the labyrinth of personal introspection and interracial competency can be painful and convoluted at times, but based on a diversity of social justice paths there is one overwhelming guideline we all share. Regardless of lingering questions, the amount of “inner work” we have done, or the lack of approval from our peers, community, the wider world or people of color themselves (!) we perform the work on principle, with the profound belief that racism is wrong. The false system of racial hierarchy imposed in the Americas is deadly to all who are not white, yet the criminality of this legacy affects us all. For those of us who belong to the dominant society and benefit from the historic subjugation of POC every day of our lives, taking responsibility means speaking “truth to power” until the day when racism is reversed. Silence is no longer an option. If we reject the ethics of white supremacy, we must believe that at some point in the future a determined collective force will undo the intersectional oppressions. And in collaboration with all those who have resisted injustice in the past, present and future, we find ourselves committed to that struggle!

Key Resources

  • DiAngelo, Robin, What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy, Peter Lang, 2012
  • DiAngelo, Robin, “White Fragility,” The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 2011
  • http://libjournal.uncg.edu/ index.php/ijcp/article/view/249/116
  • Eyers, Pegi, Ancient Spirit Rising: Reclaiming Your Roots & Restoring Earth Community , Stone Circle Press, 2016 http://www.stonecirclepress.com
  • Jensen, Robert, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege, City Lights Publishers, 2005
  • McIntosh, Peggy, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Beyond Whiteness, 2015
  • http://www.beyondwhiteness.com
  • Memmi, Albert, The Colonizer and the Colonized, Plunkett Lake Press, 2013
  • Painter, Nell Irvin, The History of White People, W.W. Norton & Company, 2010
  • Wise, Tim, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, Soft Scull Press, 2011

Pegi Eyers

Author of Ancient Spirit Rising: Reclaiming Your Roots & Restoring Earth Community, Pegi Eyers is a Celtic Animist who sees the world through a spiritual lens, and is a devotee of nature-based culture and all that is sacred to the Earth. She is an advocate for the recovery of our authentic ancestral traditions, and lives near Nogojiwanong in Mississauga Anishnaabe territory.


Pegi Eyers was featured in both the first and second issue of A Beautiful Resistance. Digital versions of both issues are now available for $4 each!

Plotting the Fall of the King

Said Arthur, “Is there any one of the marvels yet unobtained?”

Said one of his men, “There isthe blood of the witch Orddu, the daughter of the witch Orwen, of Penn Nant Govid, on the confines of Hell.”

From Culhwch and Olwen


British colonialism soaks through English-speaking Paganism like fetid morning piss. Glance through the shelves of witch bookstores and, once you get past the how-to’s on crystal communication and appropriative dream-catcher spirituality, you find books full of it: delusions of chivalric murderers, bent-knee begging for noble sovereigns, and bourgeois rituals of lords and ladies playing sex by sticking dull knives into etsy-bought chalices.

This should not surprise us. Wicca—the most prevalent of the Pagan traditions—was started by a British Colonial Administrator (Gerald Gardner) and a one-time member of two British fascist groups (Doreen Valiente; National Front and Northern League). Why wouldn’t modern Paganism find itself stained with the trappings of Empire?

No place is this seen more than the spiritualisation of the Arthurian myths. Equal parts feudal nostalgia and patriarchal obsession, the Pagan longing for the return of Great Sovereigns who might restore the balance of the world is inseparable from the nationalist fictions of fading white dominance.

Along with King Arthur (that giant-killing, witch-slaughtering thief), many traditions, particularly Druidry, find deep alchemical meaning in the form of another problematic figure: Taliesin. Born Gwion Bach, a boy tasked to watch a cauldron for a witch, he stole wisdom from a witch-goddess and went on to serve kings. Whereas Prometheus stole fire from the gods to help humans, Taliesin stole the creative force of the world to serve the imperial ambitions of slaughtering empire.

While Peter Grey challenged Pagan elders for their desire to defang witchcraft, and I have aggressed them for their allegiance with Capital, Lorna Smithers has done something even more dangerous than either of us. In The Broken Cauldron, the awenydd and poet becomes the Old Mother of the Universe herself, rebirthing beheaded giants and slaughtered witches through the starry cauldron of poetry.  In the otherworld halls of the Gatherer of Souls she collects their bones, caresses their withered heads, and speaks their condemnations into our polluted, irradiated present.

Several figures recur in her mythic wanderings, suppressed blackened figures given scant reference in the Welsh lore. One such is the witch, Orddu (Welsh: Very Black), slain by King Arthur to claim a vial of her blood. According to Culhwch and Olwen, the servants of King Arthur volunteered to go fight her first so that his honor would not be stained (what King would want to be seen fighting a common woman?) Servant after servant fought against her and failed, wrestled to the ground by her bare strength alone, until Arthur himself was ‘man enough’ to fight her.

He slayed Orddu, split her in two, and collected her blood. Another trophy for a British king, another relic in the Royal museum, given three paragraphs in the Welsh bardic lore until Orddu’s bones are gathered again by a rogue awenydd:

I cannot abide the story of Orddu’s death. How Arthur came as he always came into every story, every world, every myth, with his hatred of witches, with his living knife, to put an end to wild, recalcitrant women. Now I’ve laid it to rest I’ll share another story instead.

I shall tell what this fatal blow and the blows on the Witches of Caerloyw cost Prydain (“Prydain will fall! Prydain will fall! Prydain will fall!”). Not only the fall of the Old North and the Men of the North. The rise and fall of the British Empire (it had to needed to fall). But the splitting and bottling of magical women for over a thousand years. Draining of our blood. Boiling of our flesh. Testing if we float. Giving us The King James Bible and The Malleus Maleficarum. Taking away our prophecies and visions, gods and goddesses, our fighting strength. Confining us to virginity and chastity belts. Cutting us off from plants and spirits, rocks and rain, rivers and mist, otherworlds.

Over a thousand years on we are but shadows of ourselves. Mirrored pouts tottering on high heels. Watching ourselves on selfie-sticks. Worshipping televisions. Still split in half, bottled, boiling, floating, banging to get out.

Arthur was not just a witch-killer, but a giant-slayer, slaughtering ancient land-god after land-god to gain their cauldrons and their power. Subduing the earth beneath him, sending the old ways under hill into Annwn, even then following after. Accompanied by the sycophantic Taliesin, he stole what the land hid from him. Amongst these otherworldy ‘spoils’ was the cauldron of Annwn, once held by the Welsh giant Brân whose head once protected Britain from invasion. We read in the Welsh triads that Arthur dug that up, too, finding it unseemly that the common people relied upon a land-god, rather than their slaughtering, arrogant king.

It’s in this last fact that we glimpse the reason for Paganism’s Arthurian obsession. Tales of a king who needed no godsonly strength and the magic of his advisorsread in the context of British colonialism suddenly seem less like myth and more like imperial propaganda. The gods of land subdued, the power of witch-women destroyed: For traditions claiming to venerate the earth and the divine feminine, the prominence of Arthurian forms and Taliesin start to seem hypocritical.

chernobyl-1986
Broken Cauldron, Chernobyl

Orddu is not the only dark shadow re-awakened into Lorna’s poetry. Taliesin stole the awen from Ceridwen, who did not brew it for herself. Rather, the draught was boiled and stirred for her malformed son, Afagddu (Welsh: Utter Dark), later also called Morfrân (Welsh: Sea Raven). When first I encountered the story of Taliesin’s birth and Ceridwen’s chase, I took no delight in it. The selfless act of a mother to grant her disfigured child wisdom was sabotaged by the thoughtlessness of a child who later upheld kings and helped kill giants. What is there to love in this story?

And anyway, what happened to Afagddu?

Lorna answers this question delightfully, repeatedly giving Afagddu voice. Most startling is his tale in her piece, Sea Raven:

There’s been another disaster at the chemical plant, three people injured, one missing presumed dead. That young man’s name was Gwion Bach. He was employed in the control room in charge of the 30,000 gallon reactor vessel. His task was to keep the paddle stirring at several thousand revolutions a minute and monitor the changes in heat and pressure.

He was an absentminded sort, so lost in daydreams he didn’t realise the paddle had stuck. The temperature rose over 300°F. By the time he’d filled the cooling jacket it was too late. With a sound like a jet engine and deafening crash, the reactor exploded with a blast that broke every window.

Gwion was seen staggering from the control room like a drunk toward the toxic brew, dipping his finger in and putting it to his lips, his hair standing on end, before my wrathful mother leapt from the offices and he hare-footed it away with her hot on his heels.

Retelling ancient myths in modern settings is a tired trope, but Lorna is not writing urban fantasy.  Rather than recycling old stories for new audiences, she expands the (nuclear) core of the broken cauldrons and shows that they are still shattering.

After all, what else is atomic energy but a cauldron of shattered stars? When oil spills pollute the earth and oceans, is this not also the poisoning of the land after Gwion shattered Ceridwen’s cauldron? And the industrialisation of war: does not the giant-forged Cauldron of Annwn still bring forth unspeaking, obedient warriors?

For King and Country, I bore the cauldron whilst Arthur’s advisers listened to wheezing chests and throats of phlegm; counted blisters; bandaged weeping, reddened skin. I fought off green waves of nausea as it buckled my knees and wore a hollow in my spine.

When I heard an old woman’s lament, I repeated my mantra, plugged my ears as she screamed while the soldiers of Prydain unleashed poisonous gases at Loos and the Somme and foreign men drowned in yellow-green seas.

The powerthe magicof the awenyddion is to bend time around them and dance in those re-connected threads. The greater magic still is to pull you into their dance, to weave you into those threads so that, when you have left, you and time are still tangled in knots.

Post-colonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty wrote of these ‘time-knots’ in his introduction to Provincializing Europe, a book whose confrontation of European (and especially British) exceptionalism makes irrelevant most of the stories of kings and empire:

“what allows historians to historicize the medieval or the ancient is precisely the fact that these worlds are never lost. It is because we live in time-knots that we can undertake the task of straightening some part of the knot (which is what chronology is). Subaltern pastsaspects of these time-knotsact as a supplement to the historian’s past and in fact aid our capacity to historicize.”

It’s precisely this that Lorna does. Afagddu, Orrdu, Diwrnachthese are the subaltern pasts Paganism tries to deny. By telling their stories, we hear the cauldrons shatter again not because they are in the past, but they are shattering even now.

Ecological destruction, technological optimism, capitalist exuberance and industrialised warfarethese are the only stories kings can tell. The boy Gwion became the thief Taliesin, and the suppressed blackened ones spill out from oil wells, explode from shattered nuclear reactors, poisoning the world.

And we come to the final horror of our Paganism when we remember that both Capitalism and Industrialisation (and as Lorna points out, the very first nuclear reactor) each started in the same land where Arthur slayed witches and giants, where Taliesin broke the cauldron. And like that broken cauldron, they have all swept like choking black poison out to every part of the world.

“What lies in the cauldron now you have done away with the knowledge of wise women? Split the witches in half? Killed the giants? Driven to the seas the most ancient of boars? You are on the wrong quest, looking for the wrong grail, the cure-all that does not exist.”

If even our Pagan myths are the self-delusions of empire, then what is left for us? Though we who hear the silenced voices might raise the dead so that they might use our lips, will this ever be enough to stop the endless sundering? What good would be the reawakening of that suppressed blackness, the beheaded gods of land?

I do not know; but blackened witches, beheaded giants, and disfigured crows insist we try anyway:

Feathered arches of black wings tore from my shoulders and cracked open. My feet shrunk into claws and my body tightened into bird-form. With a black-beaked scream I flew away from the Court of the King of Suffering and broke the Spell of Nine Maidens.

Yet the death of the dead did not stop the bloodshed. Today corpses are flown in on steel horses, driven down long, wet roads to be laid on slabs in mortuaries. I no longer wish to raise them. I travel the country winged, cawing my truth and plotting the fall of the King.

In such plotting perhaps is a path far less blood-soaked than the shattering of our world.


Lorna Smithers’ book, The Broken Cauldron, is available here.


Rhyd Wildermuth

6tag_221116-215034Rhyd is a co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He was born in Appalachia, lives nomadically, speaks with stars and dead things, and likes tea.

He is an anarchist, theorist, Pagan, Marxist, punk, and really damn good cook.

He writes at Gods&Radicals and on his own blog, Paganarch.

Red Bird at Standing Rock: A Thanksgiving Message

Standing Rock

On the day of the 2016 presidential election, Energy Transfer Partners announced that it would begin the final phase of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which involves drilling under the Missouri River.  The pipeline is intended to carry a half million barrels a day of fracked oil over 1,000 miles from the Bakken oil field in North Dakata to Illinois.

The intended path of the pipeline runs through the Great Sioux Reservation.  In addition to violating sacred burial lands of the Sioux people, it threatens the drinking water of 18 million people, including residents of the Standing Rock Reservation, located just a half mile to the south.  The pipeline was previously planned to run north of Bismarck, but was relocated, in part, due to concerns about the safety of the drinking water of the (white) Bismarck residents.

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Thousands of indigenous and non-indigenous people have now gathered to Cannon Ball, North Dakota to protest the pipeline.  Standing Rock has become home to the largest gathering of American Indian tribes in over a century, with over 300 federally recognized tribes present.  Over the past several months, peaceful indigenous rights activists and climate change activists have clashed with a militarized police force and private security contractors.

Protests began in the spring of this year, but for months, the protesters received little attention in the media.  Numerous celebrities have since helped draw the media’s attention to the protest, including Shailene Woodley, who was arrested.  Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, also visited the site and now faces criminal charges for spray painting the blade of a bulldozer on the site with the words, “I approve this message.”

In the meantime, former Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton failed to take any stand on the matter, even after being confronted by Standing Rock youth at the New York headquarters of her campaign.  President Obama also adopted a cowardly wait-and-see approach to the matter.

Meanwhile, the pipeline construction has been rushing toward the Missouri River.  The pipeline company has refused to halt construction, despite “requests” by the federal government to voluntarily delay the project while other routes are considered.  Police and security contractors have used pepper spray, rubber bullets, teargas, and dogs on peaceful protesters and journalists.  More than 400 people have been arrested.  This past Sunday, police used tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters in a confined space, as well as a water canon in below-freezing temperatures, resulting in several hospitalizations for hypothermia.

As of last week, the Army Corp of Engineers has halted construction pending additional study of the situation.  While it is a small victory, it may be little more than an attempt by the Obama administration to pass this political hot potato off onto the new Republican administration.  President-elect Trump has been uncharacteristically silent on the matter, but he has close financial ties to the pipeline, an intolerance of protests, and a blind spot for conflicts of interest, not to mention being a climate change denier, so the outcome is predictable.

This is a rapidly changing situation, and by the time you read this, it may be old news.

But you may not realize just how old.

Red Bird

This story has been repeated over and over for hundreds of years.

I want to tell just one small piece of it.

Zitkala-Ša (“Red Bird”) was born a century before me, in 1876, on the Yankaton Reservation, south of what is now the Standing Rock reservation. When she was eight years old, she was taken away from her mother and sent to a boarding school in Indiana, where I live now.  The game upon which American Indians subsisted had been driven to extinction by whites, and the land reserved for them was often of such poor quality that harvests failed, leaving many dependent on government rations for survival.  Like many others, Zitkala-Ša’s mother was compelled by federal officials to let her daughter go to the boarding school under threat of cutting her rations.

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At White’s Manual Labor Institute in Indiana, Zitkala-Ša had her braids cut. “I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blade of the scissors against my neck and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids,” wrote Zitkala-Ša, “Then I lost my spirit.”  This was the beginning of the work of trying to “civilize” her.  In Zitkala-Ša’s case, they only partially succeeded.  In spite of feeling the loss of part of her indigenous heritage, Zitkala-Ša did value the education she received.  She became an accomplished orator, author, musician, and composer, but she was never completely “civilized” by the colonizers.

After spending three years at White’s Manual Labor Institute, Zitkala-Ša returned home to her mother on the reservation.  She found her mother living in poverty.  Her brother, who had also been educated in the boarding schools, had been fired from his job with the Indian Bureau and replaced by a white man, because he had stood up for his people in some small matter.

Zitkala-Ša also discovered that white settlers were occupying her tribal lands through a policy called “allotment.” In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act, which redistributed tribal land, which had been held communally, to individual American Indians.  This had the effect of weakening tribal unity, which of course was the point.

In addition, land was only granted to “competent” heads of family.  “Competent” was interpreted by white officials to mean those American Indians who had abandoned indigenous dress and customs, spoke English, farmed, and attended Christian church.  The land that was not redistributed to American Indians, could then be sold to whites.  A combination of fraud, bad harvests, and unemployment led many American Indians to sell their allotments to white settlers.  As a result of this policy, 138 million acres reserved for American Indian tribes across the U.S. was reduced to 47 million acres.

In 1890, conflict broke out between the Sioux and the United States government over the the tribes’ practice of the Ghost Dance, which was believed to call up the spirits of the dead to fight the white colonists. Sitting Bull, who was believed to be the leader of the Ghost Dance movement, was killed by an Army officer.  Two weeks later, one hundred and fifty Sioux were massacred by the U.S. Army, most of them women and children, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.  Zitkala-Ša would have been 14 years old.

After staying with her mother for a few years, Zitkala-Ša returned to the boarding school of her own volition and became a teacher there.  She went on to teach at several boarding schools for American Indian children, including the the U.S. Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which was run by Colonel Richard Henry Pratt. Pratt became infamous for advocating the forced cultural assimilation of American Indian peoples and is best remembered for his saying, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

Eventually, Zitkala-Ša realized that the boarding schools were not intended to truly educate American Indian children, but merely to prepare them to be laborers in the lowest strata of white society. She also intuited that her own success in school did not really make her equal in the eyes of whites.  Rather, she served as a kind of token, an “accomplished savage,” to prop up a system of white supremacy.

“I remember how, from morning till evening, many specimens of civilized peoples visited the Indian school. … these Christian palefaces were alike astounded at seeing the children of savage warriors so docile and industrious.

As answers to their shallow inquiries they received the students’ sample work to look upon. Examining the neatly figured pages, and gazing upon the Indian girls and boys bending over their books, the white visitors walked out of the schoolhouse well satisfied: they were educating the children of the red man! They were paying a liberal fee to the government employees in whose able hands lay the small forest of Indian timber.

In this fashion many have passed idly through the Indian schools during the last decade, afterward to boast of their charity to the North American Indian.”

zitkala-saZitkala-Ša resigned from the school and took a new name.  Her birth name was Gertrude Simmons, and she had never been given American Indian name by her mother.  On her own initiative, she assumed the name Zitkala-Ša, which means “Red Bird.”  She then began to use the language which had been forced upon her to attack the very institutions which had imposed it on her and so many like her.

Zitkala-Ša joined the Society of American Indians and later founded of the National Council of American Indians. She lobbied for American Indian people’s rights, including the end of allotment and (controversially) the extension of the right of United States citizenship to American Indians. She published articles in Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Monthly.  And she criticized the boarding school system she had previously worked for, bringing her into conflict with her former employer, Colonel Pratt.

One of Zitkala-Ša’s most influential pieces of writing was titled “Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes—Legalized Robbery,” a political pamphlet which exposed the systematic theft of oil-rich land from American Indian peoples of Oklahoma through both legal and illegal means.  Under this system, American Indians who refused to sell their land to whites were declared “incompetent” and assigned white “guardians.” These guardians stole from their wards, many of whom then starved.  When “legal” means did not work, whites resorted to kidnapping, rape, and even mass murder.

In 1917, almost a century ago, Zitkala-Ša moved with her husband and child to Washington, D.C., in the hope of increasing their political influence.  There, Zitkala-Ša would testify before in Senate wearing traditional native clothing.  Though she despaired that she was not having an impact, her work paved the way for FDR, several years later, to pass the Indian Reorganization Act, also called the “Indian New Deal,” which ended the policy of allotment and strengthened tribal governments.

“Why I Am A Pagan”

The same forces at work in Zitkala-Ša’s life are at work in the Dakota Access Pipeline: white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism.  White supremacy was at work in the forced assimilation of American Indian children through the boarding school system, and white supremacy is the reason why the U.S. government values the health of the white residents of Bismark over the health of the residents of the American Indian Standing Rock reservation.  Capitalism was the driving force behind the theft of American Indian lands in the Dakotas in Zitkala-Ša’s time, and it is the driving force behind the violation of the sacred burial lands of the Sioux people today.  Colonialism, of a physical variety, forced American Indians onto the reservations and then stole even that land from them, while a spiritual colonialism was perpetrated in the boarding schools and corrupt guardianship systems.

While American Indians have been physically colonized, the forces of capitalism and white supremacy have colonized all of our minds and hearts.  These two forces have such power over our thoughts, so deep rooted are their assumptions, that it is nearly impossible for us to imagine any other way of being.  And when whites feel those assumptions being challenged, our fight-or-flight instinct kicks in, and we react as if the foundations of our very world were being undermined.

How to resist such an insidious invader is the question. Short of complete withdrawal from Western civilization, how are we to be, as the Christians say, in the world, but not of the world? This question is particularly acute for contemporary Pagans and Polytheists who strive to live a counter-cultural life within the modern Western overculture.  Zitkala-Ša’s life suggests a possible answer.

If there were a theme to Zitkala-Ša’s life story, it would be liminality.  She wrote that she was “neither a wild Indian nor a tame one.”  Throughout her life, she struggled to reconcile the value of preserving her native tradition with the benefits of assimilation to white culture; she strove to be in white culture, but not of white culture.  She was mixed-race, a child of a Sioux mother and an (absentee) white father.  She was only given an English name by her mother, but adopted an American Indian name at the age of 23.  She was taken by force to a boarding school, but later returned to that boarding school as a teacher.  She valued learning how to read and write English, but she questioned the cost, “whether real life or long-lasting death lies beneath this semblance of civilization.”  She did not idealize American Indian people, but called out white hypocrisy, observing that whites had been as “savage” throughout history as any American Indians. She worked for one of the most infamous promulgators of assimilationist policy, but she later challenged the system which he represented.

Throughout all of this, nature was Zitkala-Ša’s touchstone, rooting her as she moved back and forth between her two worlds. “In the process of my education I had lost all consciousness of the nature world around me,” she wrote following her resignation from the U.S. Indian Industrial School,

“Thus, when a hidden rage took me to the small white-walled prison which I then called my room, I unknowingly turned away from my one salvation. … For the white man’s papers I had given up my faith in the Great Spirit. For these same papers I had forgotten the healing in trees and brooks. … Like a slender tree, I had been uprooted from my mother, nature, and God.”

And so, in 1902, after spending two and half years at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Zitkala-Ša returned to the reservation in South Dakota again.  There, she published an article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled, “Why I Am a Pagan.”  In it, she writes about how the water, sky, and sun “bespeak with eloquence the loving Mystery round about us” and how her native people “recognize a kinship to any and all parts of this vast universe.”

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In the essay, Zitkala-Ša describes her joy laying out in the grass on a river bank on a sunny day, and then returning to her mother’s log cabin to find the “solemn-faced” native Christian preacher waiting for her.  The preacher, who is a converted American Indian, observes that he has not seen her at church.  He says he is confused, because he sees no “unbecoming behavior” from her and hears only good reports from others about her, and yet she is not a Christian.  He urges her away from the “folly” of her ancestral beliefs and to belief in the “one God,” and he warns her of the alternative: hellfire. Zitkala-Ša listens respectfully, though it seems to her that “he mouth[s] most strangely the jangling phrases of a bigoted creed.”

When the preacher leaves, Zitkala-Ša reflects on the differences between Christian and indigenous belief.  “A wee child toddling in a wonder world,” she writes,

“I prefer to their dogma my excursions into the natural gardens where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers. If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan.”

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“Pagan” Anti-Colonialism

“Pagan” is a contested term today, as are most words relating to identity.  What made Zitkala-Ša Pagan was more than her resistance of conversion to Christianity, which she calls “the new superstition” (she seemed to have little more respect for the “old superstition”). Being “Pagan” meant for her being conscious of the voice of the divine in the natural world, and feeling kinship with all the living beings in it, human and other-than-human.  The same is true for many contemporary Pagans today.

But for Zitkala-Ša, at least, being Pagan also seemed to be about something more.  It seemed to be about resisting white imperialism, specifically colonization by white “civilization,” not just of her land, but also of her soul. She seemed to understand that there was a connection between these two forms of colonization, that a vital connection to the land was necessary to resist colonization of one’s soul.  She felt this when she was separated from nature by the walls of her dormitory at the boarding school.  And she witnessed this when she returned to the reservation and saw her people’s connection to the land broken by racist government policies and the opportunistic greed of white settlers.  She saw the material effects of that disconnection in the poverty of her people and the spiritual effects in poverty of the countenance of those of her people who had converted to Christianity, whom she likened to “shadows” or “echoes.”

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Today, the Dakota Access Pipeline is both a physical manifestation of that colonization, as well as a spiritual symbol of the colonization of our minds and hearts by capitalism and white supremacy.  This pipeline carrying fracked oil not only invades the sovereign lands of the Sioux, but also non-indigenous lands on both sides of the reservation.  All our land, all our water, and all our bodies are being invaded by this “black snake” of capitalism, guided by the hand of white supremacy.

But even more insidious is how these same forces have colonized our minds, weaving their way into thoughts and words, both individual and collective. Consider how the pipeline is justified by reference to its comparative “safety” in relation to bomb trains, but the underlying assumption of our need for fossil fuel remains largely unquestioned.  Consider how easily the pipeline protest is ignored by many whites who see it as an indigenous rights issue that doesn’t affect them, rather than a human rights issue.  Consider how easily the path of the pipeline was moved from Bismark, which is 92% white, but how it now slouches implacably forward through the Sioux reservation.  Consider the disparate treatment of the (white) Bundy militia which occupied a federal building in Oregon, but escaped unpunished, and the treatment of American Indians who are defending their sovereign land, but have been met with disproportionate state force.  Consider the silence of our cherished institutions in the face of this threat, from our supposedly free press to the Democratic administration.

Perhaps, as in Zitkala-Ša’s time, being Pagan today is also about resisting colonialism.  Capitalism and white supremacy begin by alienating us from the land and from each other, and in the spiritual vacuum thus created, the way is paved for a colonization which is both physical and spiritual.  This colonization is closely related to another phenomena with which Pagans are familiar: disenchantment.

We decolonize our minds and hearts and re-enchant the world by reversing the process by which we were colonized and disenchanted in the first place: by reconnecting to the land and to each other.  By challenging narratives that “other” people of color.  By opposing policies that alienate us from our mother earth.  By standing in solidarity with American Indians whose lands have been invaded by an oil company.  By fighting all encroachments of Big Oil on our lands and our souls.

That is why I stand with Standing Rock.

To support the Standing Rock protest, click here.


John Halstead

John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which is hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.


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