Review: Paradise of the Birders

August 9, 2013

Miriam Supuma
Miriam Supuma

The Nature program “Birds of the Gods,” narrated by David Attenborough, is about birds-of-paradise in New Guinea. Although separated by wide geography and culture, not to mention a different purpose and mindset, this video validates something I have been saying about Pagan magic for some time: that practitioners need to get out of the library and spend more time in the field. The 2011 documentary follows a team of biologists headed by Miriam Supuma as they study various bird-of-paradise species and interview tribal religious leaders on ways these leaders harvest, store and utilize bird-of-paradise feathers. Supuma is interested in determining the stability of bird numbers, studying the more rare bird-of-paradise species, and promoting sustainable cultural practices.

Blue Bird of Paradise, drawing by Richard Bowdler Sharpe
Blue Bird of Paradise, drawing by Richard Bowdler Sharpe
Toward that end, the scientists, all natives of New Guinea, bring video and recording equipment to an area infused with strong trespassing taboos, where most hunters fear to venture. The team reasons that chances of encountering rare birds are higher in this area. It would be interesting to know if those who ventured into this area voluntarily brought, or were pressed to accept, talismans of protection, or if special rites were performed before the trip. If this were the case, however, it is unlikely that participants would have volunteered this information, as scientific culture frowns so greatly on their own members harboring beliefs about the supernatural.

The documentary shows rare footage of beautiful bird plumage, intricate courtship dances, and interesting vocalizations, but for me the high point is a moment where Supuma is observing a courtship dance and makes an important connection. A look of recognition moves across her face as she realizes this bird-of-paradise display is as a traditional dance within her own tribal culture. The documentary cuts away to old footage of the dance being performed by a group, and the similarity is striking and undeniable. For me this was an exciting yet familiar moment, as I have felt this same spark many times while observing animals in their natural habitats. A moment of recognition occurs where the logic behind an arcane piece of folklore becomes clear. It was touching to witness someone else having that Aha! moment.

By directly studying animals and plants, folklore becomes more immediate and easier to remember and connect with. Other magical secrets that have not been written down become accessible. The value of studying nature for practitioners of a nature religion is unfortunately not understood by many, yet it cannot be over emphasized.

Birds of the Gods PBS Nature epidsode.

Watch Blue Bird of Paradise on PBS. See more from Nature.

Review: Namgar

July 12, 2013

At the edge of the mountain ridge path
The orphaned white camel colt weeps.
When the frost is so violent that trees crack
The white camel colt seeks for grass under snow where the herd has just passed…

On a cold evening early last spring a few dozen people gathered in the village church to hear Buryat singer Namgar Lkhasaranova accompanied on traditional instruments by her husband Eugeny Zolotarev. It was a fantastic concert. Namgar has an amazing voice and the concert featured percussion and wind instruments I had never heard before.

Buryatia is a large region in Siberia near the Mongolian border. It is in the Adirondack news periodically due to local residents traveling to the region and vice versa. This is not, as I would have guessed, for commiserating about long cold winters. Apparently both mountainous regions face similar ecological challenges, and contact over these issues has facilitated some cultural exchange.

The concert sparked many questions for me, and I would have liked to have interviewed Namgar for this blog. I will probably get another chance to do so, however, because the children raved about Namgar’s school concert for days and they will no doubt lobby persistently to get her back. It surprised me that the children were so taken by Namgar, since her traditional style of music would be unfamiliar to them.

After the concert I picked up Namgar’s CD, entitled “Nomad.” Although I’ve decided I like the CD, I was initially disappointed because it was so different from the concert, being a crossover album containing elements of traditional Buryat folk music and instruments combined with a jazz/rock style. A pamphlet is included with translations of the lyrics in English. In preparing this blog post I discovered that Namgar has released a new CD called “Dawn of the Foremothers.” I will try to obtain a copy to review here.

Review: Lucifer Ascending by Bill Ellis

June 14, 2013

lascI picked up this book written by an academic active in Lutheran ministries because the author and I share an uncommon belief: that the West has never been thoroughly Christianized and pagan “superstitions” continue to operate in plain view. Bill Ellis’ examples on this subject are much closer to orthodox ideas of the occult then mine would be, including things like formal ritual magic, Satanic “bibles,” ghost stories, and graveyard encounters with the supernatural. My examples would be more banal, including things like healing charms, housecleaning rituals, garden planting, and signs regarding true love. Yet even keeping his examination of magic to the narrow scope that meets Christian definitions of diabolical, Ellis finds no shortage of material.

The inspiration for this treatise appears to be the high level of concern in fundamentalist circles generated by the Harry Potter books, which Ellis believes is misplaced. He places the tenets of the Hogwarts School in historical context and argues, “witchcraft, magical ritual, and contact with the supernatural constitute stable and generally functional folk traditions in cultures in both Europe and North America, up to the present day.” Ellis explores folk magic and legend of the past 300 years with more emphasis on German and Pennsylvania Dutch practices than I have seen elsewhere, and he also gives a nod to the prevalence of hoodoo. For this reason many students of witchcraft will find it useful in providing historical background. Ellis provides interesting theories about the function of witchcraft beliefs in Christian society and the reasons for authoritative suppression of witchcraft. Some of these motivations for suppression, such as patriarchal monopoly of medicine or legal control of marginalized people, will be familiar to many. One which was new to me has to do with the fundamentalist view of Christianity as a force for good that is opposed to witchcraft as the force of evil. Some Christians need to view witches as malignant evil-doers because that belief conforms to their world view and affirms that their own monopoly on goodness. The supposition that “a good witch is worse than a bad witch,” expressed in the Roman Catholic theology which laid the groundwork for the witch hunts, is generally believed by Pagans to reflect the desire of the church to hold monopoly over magic and ritual and to wrest power from women and the lower classes. But this may not be the issue operating in present day clashes between witches and fundamentalists. If certain Christians are determined to view themselves as stalwart goodness in a world of evil, then the presence of malignant witches is reassuring and the presence of good witches is profoundly unsettling. With fundamentalists of this stripe, pagan anti-defamation campaigns to show the world that “we’re really good people” will not meet with success and will even precipitate greater opposition.

Ellis devotes considerable space to Satanic escapades of teenagers which range from possession of Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible to summoning witches or ghosts in order to curse them to vandalizing graveyards. He argues that these are expressions of rebellion arising from the disempowerment of youth, using the “demonic possessions” of the girls in Salem Village which precipitated that late seventeenth century American witch craze as an example. I would agree that obtaining a copy of a book entitled Satanic Bible is an act of rebellion, and the girls in Salem Village may have been acting out of their disempowerment, but many of these Satanic activities strike me as reinforcing of Christian beliefs. The cursing of witches and the vandalism of graveyards expresses disaffection and hostility in a socially conforming way. I would place these actions in a category with gay bashing or desecration of synagogues. If rebellion and defiance is the motive, why not vandalize a church? Churches are occasionally vandalized by teenagers, of course, but these churches tend to be African-American, which supports my take on the issue.

The role of women in the early beginnings of the Pentecostal movement, and how that movement co-opted elements of spiritualism and magic, I found fascinating. Ellis explains, “The revival expressed itself from the start as being in some palpable sense governed by supernatural forces.” He contends, “Revivalist movements likely do not produce cycles of supernatural or demonic phenomena, but they do provide ready opportunities in group meetings for people to describe their experiences and fit them into a shared mythology.” Within the context of a new religious movement women found opportunities for leadership that had been denied to them in more orthodox religious settings. One leader, Jesse Penn-Lewis, described the opposition to evangelical women’s ministries as “war by Satan upon the womanhood of the world.” It seems women have typically been at the forefront of new religious movements, from early Christianity to the Pentecostals, only to find themselves in subordinate positions again once these movements solidified.

Lucifer Ascending is more evenhanded and better researched than most books dealing with witches coming out of the academic presses, and I think it adds to the social discourse on witchcraft. Even real witches are not always aware of how pervasive witchcraft is.

WITCHCRAFT IN EUROPE 400-1700: A documentary history, 2nd edition (Review)

March 1, 2013

Edited by Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters (University of Pennsylvania, 2001)

Much of the information available to pagans about the witch persecutions of European origin is biased and distorted, if not downright inaccurate. This is even (or especially) true of information from academic sources, which often have a strong antifeminist bias as well as a fear of appearing to validate twenty-first century pagan notions. Reviewing source material can cut through a lot of this prejudice and misinformation to give a more accurate understanding of the prejudice and misinformation that sparked the witch hunts.

Witchcraft in Europe is a collection of sixty-nine texts tracing the evolution of Christian belief about witchcraft. Included are theological writings, excerpts from witch trials, personal accounts by witch hunters, and essays by clerics and non-clerics questioning the validity of witch persecutions. Of particular value are the forty-one illustrations that reflect the understanding of artists of the period about witchcraft.

By looking at documents such as these we are by definition getting a biased account. These men (they are all men) were of similar religion, social class, and education, whatever their beliefs on the witchcraft question, and they themselves were limited in access to accurate data. Still, a look at their thought processes, understanding of the world, and personal motivations reveals a great deal about how the persecutions originated and provides a few insights as to why the fear of witchcraft grew to such monstrous proportions.

The original edition of this book concentrated on the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries, and most books about the witch persecutions focus on a narrower period than this, coinciding with the most intense trial activity. The editors decided that a longer view was necessary in gaining an accurate understanding of the development and evolution of beliefs about witchcraft. The longer historical period in itself makes this book superior to most others, although an understanding of history regarding paganism and witchcraft before and after this timeframe is also important.

There is an introduction to each of the texts giving a background of the author along with a summary of his other work, which is very helpful. There is also a forty page introduction, which has some biases. Read the rest of the book and form your own conclusions.

I have had this book on my shelf for years and have read many sections numerous times, but it was not until this year that I actually read the whole 400+ pages in order from start to finish. I have to admit it was painful, alternately tedious and infuriating, but in the end worth the effort.

Las Brujas

January 18, 2013

Most people who meet my casual acquaintance struggle with where to place me. Many file me with “must be Native American.” A few ask point blank if my parents were hippies. When I lived in southern Arizona, I was surprised (and a bit disturbed, because I wasn’t used to it) to discover that many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans had me pegged right away. Some (actually the majority) carefully avoided me. Others cajoled me into telling their fortunes or even asked for charms. My landlady had trouble getting repairs done because the Mexican construction workers she employed refused to enter my house. A friend of mine, also a brujo, had an even more disconcerting experience: some Spanish-speaking landscapers he hired reported him to the sheriff.

In Brujas, Bultos, y Brasas: Tales of Witchcraft and the Supernatural in the Pecos Valley Nasario Garcia interviews los viejitos, the old folks, in rural New Mexico about the witches. The book reminds me of ghost story compilations from the Ozarks or Appalachia. Witches and supernatural occurrences are portrayed in wholly malevolent ways. The line between witches and healers is firmly drawn, something which contradicts my own observations in southern Arizona and in another part of New Mexico. The familiar story of folk healers defaming rival healers with accusations of witchcraft sounds like it might be part of the subtext in these reminiscences, although this is reading between the lines. Another possible parallel with other folklore of European derivation is the description of ghosts or witches as points of light – brasas or embers. In some cultures the fairies are described as sparks of light.

The viejitos often talk about El Mal Ojo, the evil eye. According to Viviana Tapia, “You treated it by spitting wild pie plant with cachana, a root used to ward off evil. You had to spit it – spit in the face of the afflicted so that the evil eye could be lifted, so that it would go away. It’s cachana, that’s what the medicine is called. The same persons who would spit it are the ones who would chew it (the root). And it had to be a Juan or a Juana in order to cure the victim, got it? Any other way was not possible.”

Another common theme in the interviews is La Llorona, The Wailing Woman, for those who like to collect these stories. I won’t go into this legend here today, but if there’s some interest I’ll do a post on it later.

Most of the people interviewed do not appear to know anything special about witchcraft (although you never know), but there is one woman I would like to have talked to. The interviews happened about twenty years ago, so it is unlikely that any of the storytellers are still alive. I appreciated having both the Spanish and the translation. Academic researchers have a hard time understanding magical concepts, and what they interpret is highly suspect. Although my Spanish is not the best, I think the translation is dependable.

I wonder if some day a folklorist in the Sonoran Desert will be collecting stories about La Bruja Gringa. I did NOT put El Ojo on anybody, just so you know. I will haunt you with a thousand brasas if you say I did.

Sex Changes: A memoir of marriage, gender and letting go ~ Christine Benvenuto

December 28, 2012

What happens when your world gets turned upside down and in the confusion of reevaluating all that you thought true, the people you regarded as allies distance themselves or judge you? Christine Benvenuto’s memoir of love, betrayal and change is getting attention for its portrayal of the somewhat sexy topic of sex change, but as the writer of a spiritual blog I was more drawn to the theme of community support, particularly support from religious community.

Christine was in a marriage of over twenty years with three small children when her husband “Tracey” announced his intention of exploring gender transition. (Note: Christine uses male pronouns for Tracey in the book.) Over the following year, Christine resisted each step of her husband’s transition. As events unfolded, Christine says “I clung to stasis like a fraying lifeline, kicking and screaming as it slipped through my fingers.” (Christine does not like the word “transition.” She explains, “Transition implied to me something ordinary, something gentle, something – dare I say it – natural.” Although her point is well taken, I will use this word here because it is the word we have for this process.) As the transition progressed and Christine became resigned to the ending of her marriage, she insists that a new Tracey emerged: “He didn’t seem the same. He didn’t act the same, didn’t sound the same. His values seemed to change along with his personality.” The new Tracey was controlling and abusive. He expected her to adjust to marriage with a transwoman. He made promises and concessions and repeatedly reneged on them, often insisting such agreements had never been made. When Christine insisted that the marriage must end if he persisted with the transition, Tracy took a page out of so many controlling husbands’ playbook and threatened her with loss of her children and possessions.

I’m always skeptical when I hear that a spouse has abruptly changed from a supportive partner to a controlling one. Particularly in a marriage as long-standing as this one, it seems more likely that those behaviors were there all along and became more pronounced. Still, Christine’s reaction to her husband’s transition was not one of a traumatized wife. When initially confronted with the changes, she argued that Tracey’s transition robbed her of a husband and that it was damaging to their children. When Tracey would not abandon transition she separated from him and fought for her rights under divorce laws. She also insisted on viewing Tracey’s transition from her own perspective rather than accepting Tracey’s narrative. And it was Christine, not Tracey, who longed to shroud the embarrassment of their disintegrating relationship in secrecy. She explains “I grew up in a family and a culture in which, if something bad happened, you didn’t advertise.” Fortunately for her, Tracey wanted their small town, religious community, and circle of friends to learn about and understand his transition, so secrecy could not remain an option. But this is the point where life for Christine, for awhile, truly became rough.

Tracey’s psychotherapist, perhaps not surprisingly, chose to view the situation from Tracey’s individual perspective and in his personal self-interest rather than in a systemic way, through family dynamics. Somewhat more surprisingly, Christine encountered judgment and ostracism from her liberal small town and individuals in her religious community. This was because, in their view, she had failed to support Tracey sufficiently in his transition. Also, because Tracey was angry with her, the community felt a need to side with him because he was transgendered. Christine charges that in the point of view of the community, his being transsexual means “Anything he does is justified.”

Perhaps I overidentified with this part of Christine’s narrative. The parallel between her experience and the persecution of Dianic witches in recent years is striking. Ostensibly both have been about supporting trans rights versus born-women’s autonomy. I would argue that this is a false choice, but it is a choice pagans believe they are forced to make, even if they would not frame the issue so starkly. That the interests of genetic women are abandoned in this situation is not surprising, really. The mutterings against a religious subculture defined by women have been long-standing in the larger pagan community, albeit rather muted before the issue of trans inclusion appeared as a politically correct cudgel. Applying this insight to Christine’s situation, perhaps the community was responding out of their ingrained bias that a wife should support her husband over her own interests. Tracey’s new presentation as a transwoman to people who had known him as a man, and doubtless still thought of him as a man despite their desire to appear otherwise, may have allowed the community to fool themselves into thinking that they were not acting out age-old patriarchal patterns. At any rate, it was the betrayal by community that was hardest to overcome. Christine says:

Because he believed he was doing what he had to do, it is easier, ironically, for me to forgive Tracey than the community who supported him and abandoned my children and me…. By these people, many of them women, many of them Jewish, many of them feminists, my children and I were betrayed. In the Valley of the Politically Correct, their choice wasn’t difficult or brave. It required them to be deeply true to nothing and no one. It was cowardice, pure and simple.

Tracey’s decision to transition was ultimately a good thing for Christine, despite Tracey’s selfishness toward her and their children, despite the harsh rewriting of what she had believed was a happy marriage, despite the loss of her religious fellowship, and despite the coolness of self-advertised progressives in her community. Her pain was too great to endure in isolation, and she was forced to risk an intimacy in her friendships that she otherwise would not have. She learned who her friends were and who they weren’t. “A religious community we thought we could rely on fell away; once peripheral friends drew close.” As dedicated religious fellowships became less central, Christine began to bring a spiritual perspective into her friendships, asking that close friends, Jewish or not, begin relating to her as a religious person. To her surprise, people who had not pulled away from her which she separated from her husband accepted her on other levels as well.

Sex Changes chronicles one woman’s acceptance of unwelcome changes that eventually improved her life. It also raises troubling questions about how communities are dealing with transgender issues.