Thursday, March 31, 2011

Is Harvard Anti-Witch?

You may have seen this story making the rounds on the internet: Harvard University is hosting a "Social Transformation" conference put on by a student leadership organization known for its right-wing Christianity and anti-pagan views. The group's website doesn't present any obvious anti-pagan rhetoric, but stories on The Daily Kos (which includes a video of a scheduled speaker engaged in a beatific invocation aimed at driving out witchcraft from the land) and elsewhere (the Harvard Crimson calls the scheduled speakers "incendiary") reiterate the group's known anti-witchcraft activism.

A recent article in Newsweek (linked on Social Transformation's website) explores the ways in which Harvard, founded as a training ground for Christian ministers, has become increasingly secular and cannot even support its own "department of religion," instead relegating degrees in religion to the Divinity School located a half mile from the main campus.

From the look of it, this conference may indeed have some anti-occult sentiment lurking beneath the neutral and oh-so-forward-thinking language on its website. The main thrust seems to be that secularism is the dominant mindset in the United States, and an institution like Harvard, founded on Christian doctrine, is in a unique position to address the loss of spiritual integrity in America. To drive out the darkness, as it were.

Response from the pagan community has been predictably over-the-top, with many referring to the group as "witch hunters." Some are calling for protests. There are petitions decrying Harvard's decision to host the conference. Laurie Cabot's group has posted a rather long and byzantine Note on Facebook.

Are some of the scheduled conference speakers anti-pagan? Yes, it would seem so. Is Harvard at fault for allowing this group to use their campus for their conference? No.

Harvard itself is not anti-pagan. I myself have taken courses in Witchcraft and Celtic Paganism there, in two different departments. I also co-organized two academic conferences, in 2006 and 2007, focused on paganism in media. We received nothing but total cooperation and support from various departments at Harvard, including the Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology, the Harvard Film Archive, and the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures. Our guest speakers included Fiona Horne, R. J. Stewart, and Ronald Hutton. Clearly the campus is interested in hosting a diverse cross-segment of the academic community.

Here's the thing: as offensive as this weekend's conference may seem to some of us, the conferences put on in 2006 and 2007 were very likely offensive to others. Granted, Harvard was not bombarded with protests at that time (that we know of), but they might easily have been. As an institution of higher learning, they are expected to remain open-minded and neutral, and be respectful supporters of free speech.

Some might counter such statements by saying that hate speech isn't covered by the First Amendment. But what is and isn't hate speech is largely a matter of opinion. I have to say, given some of the anti-Christian invective I have seen spewed by the pagan community at times, I'd be hard-pressed to say that the right-wing witch-haters are any worse when it comes to hate speech. I'm not happy this conference is happening at Harvard, but I can't say they should be stopped from hosting it. And I think that protesting Harvard is a bit wrongheaded. They're not the ones who are anti-pagan; the "Social Transformation" folks are. And frankly, anyone who finds this kind of rhetoric compelling or reasonable is not likely to listen to a calm discussion of what does and doesn't constitute free speech.

The only way to really shift anyone's mindset is to behave with integrity. Don't get angry or indignant. Don't point fingers or call names. It just fuels the fire and allows our detractors to feel justified in their views. There is a constantly rising and receding tide of fanatical Christianity in this country; it does seem to be rising slightly at the moment, and it will do so again. The fact that it's all tied up with our national politics makes for some interesting and frustrating times. But we can rise above the insanity.

Just keep it in your pants, people: be respectful, listen, and disagree where you disagree. And educate where you can. And always, always, work towards understanding.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Wiccan Fired by TSA

This excellent article from MSNBC details the firing of a Wiccan employee by TSA at the Albany International airport. The fact that this is in my city is less interesting to me than the fact than this is a clear-cut case of religious discrimination and the fostering of a hostile work environment. The article makes it clear that he thinks the prejudicial treatment of this employee based on her beliefs is offensive; but the upshot of it all is that the employee lost her job for unrelated administrative issues. The fact that employee expressed concern about the incompetence of her fellow employees and the implications for passenger safety is troubling as well.

I am frankly surprised something like this has not happened before. I've seen some utterly appalling behavior from TSA employees towards customers, and on the same day and within arms-length, seen excellent, courteous and professional behavior.

I wonder how far this would have gone if these employees were unionized? Surely the proper grievance procedure would have been followed? And the employee would have known to document everything because a union representative would have encouraged this when she made her first complaint. Unionizing also makes the need for this kind of whistleblowing less likely, since there is generally more transparent support systems for employees from management.

And does anyone but me find it outrageous that TSA employees, who are famously overworked, underpaid and often under-qualified, do NOT have a union? Not only would these employees perform better, but any employees who wee not able to uphold union standards would lose their jobs, and perhaps that would make the skies safer for everyone. That this article notes this fired employee was very skilled at discovering concealed weapons means she was competent in at least one important aspect of her job. That she was comfortable with frisking passengers because her experience as a massage therapist is another point in her favor, since this has become a contentious issue of late.

I think it's obvious that the superstition and ignorance displayed by Smith's fellow employees created a tense and hostile situation, and that's on them. If they find witchcraft or Wicca repugnant or frightening, and complain to their superiors about working with a "Wiccan" then the supervisors in question should take the time to educate themselves on the matter, and insist their employees do the same. Regardless of whether the prejudiced employees think of Wicca as a "religion" or not is beside the point; their prejudicial behavior did, regardless, violate this woman's rights. Religion should not be an issue in the workplace. Period.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Whatever Happened to BLACK DEATH?

It may already be playing at a theatre near you, or will be very soon...if you're lucky. (Or not, depending on your point of view; reviews have been slightly mixed).

The film is playing at a very limited range of theatres now, perhaps because it is also available on DVD and various on-demand services.

This medieval tale of the disease that decimated Europe and provided yet another layer of occult superstition to the centuries of religious persecution stars Sean Bean and John Lynch, and is directed by young British director Christopher Smith. You can read more about it here on The Celluloid Bough.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Wake Wood

What could be more exciting than a new Hammer Horror film? You remember Hammer; the studio that produced some of the most memorable modern horror genre classics, like The Devil Rides Out; especially those gorgeous, dreamy vampire films of the 1960s and 1970s. Hammer seemed destined to fade into obscurity after their heyday. The studio more or less "hibernated" during the 1980s and regrouped at the dawn of the twenty-first century. They were sold, along with their vast film library, to a consortium, and then again to a new production company. They came back on the scene in earnest in 2008, and found a warm welcome from audiences and critics in 2010 with Let Me In, a very respectable American remake of the Swedish horror hit Let the Right One In.

Wake Wood, which began pre-production three years ago, is finally opening in the UK this week, is Hammer's first film in nearly three decades and promises to be very fine indeed. Advance reviews are starting to come in and are very positive. It had a gala premiere in Dublin and many UK horror fans have been buzzing about it for months. Wake Wood opens March 25th in the UK, and will be appearing in North America later this spring. It looks to be a delightfully Gothic story with occult overtones; can't wait! My friend Robert was fortunate to be present on-set at some of the Dublin shooting locations, and shares his experiences here.

Welcome back, Hammer! Looking forward to your forthcoming remake of Cat People, too, and other horror gems to come.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Love and Loss on the Misty Moors (A Review of JANE EYRE)

Charlotte Bronte’s well-loved novel introduced a heroine of such integrity, passion and flawed self-sabotage that it’s surprising more actresses aren’t clamoring to play her. But young Mia Wasikowska (The Kids Are All Right) did clamor, after reading the novel at age 18 and asking her agent if there were currently any film versions in the works. The pairing of this actress of astonishing gifts with a similarly-gifted and unique director (Cary Fukunaga, whose debut feature Sin Nombre, a Spanish language film about Mexican immigrants and drug gangs, won many international awards) has yielded a rich, memorable adaptation that just may make Gothic literature fashionable again, as fashionable as it was in the late Victorian era when Bronte’s novel first appeared.

Jane’s story is sad and layered: she is born into wealth, cast off by her cruel aunt, raised in a cruel orphanage, and finds employment as a governess for a stern but good-hearted man, Edward Rochester, who develops feelings for Jane, but who harbors a terrible secret. This version begins about two-thirds of the way into the story, a flash-forward sequence of Jane’s flight from Rochester’s house into the wilderness, exposed to the rough weather on the windy moors, when she is discovered by St. John Rivers, a minister who lives with his sisters. Jane is soaked to the bone, shivering, lying in the bracken under the pouring rain. That Fukunaga chooses to open the film with one of the novel’s most evocative passages, but one of minimal action and no dialogue, signals viewers that watching this film will, uncannily, feel a lot like reading the book.

And I mean that in the best possible way. Two qualities set this very literary adaptation apart from the many excellent ones that have come before. First, it is truly gothic in every sense of the word: dark, spooky, psychologically intense and at times terrifying, from the heartless cruelty of Mrs. Reed to the murderous eyes of Bertha Mason. Second, it captures the natural world with rich detail: the stormy moors, the gardens of Thornfield Hall, the blossoming trees that hover over the newly-engaged lovers. Seasons, weather, time spent outdoors: these function as seamless story aspects rather than signposts of "atmosphere" as they might in a less thoughtful film. Very few heritage films manage to convey the centrality of nature in such stories without seeming precious or artificial. Jane Eyre unfolds in the mind as it unfurls before the eye, again, in much the same way one experiences reading Bronte's novel. The stunning cinematography by Adriano Goldman (Sin Nombre, Conviction) and original score by Dario Marinelli (Atonement, Agora) further enhance the weather and lyricism of this film.

And then there are the fine performances. Miss Wasikowska is beguiling as the socially-awkward, soft-spoken Jane, whose intelligence and imagination belie her horrific childhood. An actress must somehow seem both plain and beautiful in this role, and Wasikowska’s otherworldly looks are suitably haunting. As Edward Rochester, Michael Fessbender (whose diverse resume includes a noble Roman soldier in Centurion, and a cheeky demon in the BBC series Hex) is compellingly rough, gentle, and constantly one mental step ahead of everyone, except the doe-eyed governess who bewitches him. Supporting players Imogen Poots (Fassbender’s pagan helpmeet in Centurion, as Rochester’s intended Blanche Ingram), Judi Dench (the assiduous but warm Mrs. Fairfax), Sally Hawkins (Mrs. Reed), Jamie Bell (St. John) and young Freya Parks (as Jane’s childhood friend Helen Burns) round out the excellent cast.

I cannot recommend Jane Eyre highly enough. Fukunaga has crafted a bona fide heritage film full of freshness and nuance, one that brings alive one of the finest novels ever written in the English language, a story of love, loss, courage, independence, forgiveness and triumph over adversity. Now, when’s the last time a film invoked the highest of human emotions in you? Reader, you’ll love it.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The History of Pagans in the Media: A Cautionary Tale

It's always kind of disturbing when some aspect of contemporary witchcraft is misrepresented in the media. And so it's natural that some folks want to be good representatives and spokespersons, and share with the world the "truth" about what "we" do. Of course, "we" is relative. And definitions of various permutations and practices of the pagan community vary widely. Because complexity is anathema to news sound bytes, the short-sharp-sexy statement tends to rise to the top of the midden heap of pagan public relations.

The latest example: Christian Day, self-described "warlock" and successful retail and culture merchant of Salem, Massachusetts, becoming the go-to spokesperson on...Charlie Sheen? Yes, Sheen's use of the word "warlock" might have passed unnoticed but for some "journalists" at TMZ who did some googling and realized they had some infotainment gold. Other news outlets followed, some of them as far afield as Australia, where the Daily Telegraph's headline claims that Sheen has "insulted America's pagan community." Day has responded to Sheen's "warlock" comment by stating the following: “I am going to magically bind Mr. Sheen, not to harm him, but to simply prevent him from using this word in such a negative manner in the future.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the pagan community is all in a tizzy, claiming such remarks make the community look bad, as well as criticizing what many perceive to be Day's ill-advised reclaiming of the word "warlock" (which is believed to mean "oathbreaker" and thus not an accurate or desirable term for referring to oneself as a male witch).

Day and cohorts Lori Bruno and Laurie Stathopoulos have been interviewed by many media outlets in the last 24 hours, and Day is clearly delighted, even speculating that his New Year's resolution of hiring a "midget assistant" (something he aspires to in part because comedienne Margaret Cho has apparently done the same) will soon be fulfilled due to all this extraordinary publicity.

Pagans who want media attention are nothing new. Look at Aleister Crowley; he was a public sensation and scandalous topic of conversation throughout society in the days before Facebook, before television, before radio. His desire for fame and fortune certainly marred what might have been a respectable career as a talented poet and brilliant occultist and author. Well, maybe also the drug addiction, unpaid debts and sexual enslavement of women held him back just a teeny bit.

Then there's Gerald Brousseau Gardner: who decided it was necessary to reveal the secrets of witches and who offered up his "Ye Bok of Ye Arts Magical" as a found text of ancient origin, when in fact he wrote it himself (in all of its poorly-spelled glory). Gardner might have become widely-admired for his originality and creative synthesis of many sources to create a new spiritual tradition; but his desire for a certain level of authenticity and notoriety has tarnished his legacy considerably (well, also all that skyclad scourging).

Gardner's protege and founder of Alexandrian Wicca (the second best-known modern witchcraft tradition after Gardnerian Wicca), Alex Sanders, was an apparently contentious and ego-driven man who proclaimed himself "King of the Witches" and generally inspired widespread ridicule and disapproval as rumors of his antics spread. Again, but for his ego, the man might have contributed a great deal to modern paganism.

Look at Sybil Leek: an Englishwoman who wrote many books, and who appeared on many radio and television shows to be interviewed about being a witch. She eventually moved to the United States to enjoy wider recognition among young would-be witches who were fomenting the occult revival of the 1960s. Sybil was smart and down to earth, but dressing all in black and wearing her pet crow (Mr. Hotfoot Jackson) on her shoulder did mark her as a bit loony in the eyes of the general public.

But why should not witches simply be themselves in the public eye? Why not answer the nay-saying, superstitious public outcry by being upfront and honest about who we are? Enter Laurie Cabot: The Official Witch of Salem. We know she's official because she requested the title from then-governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis. Dressed in flowing black robes, with a Celtic spiral tattoo on her face, her Salem shops have been famous, and her crime-solving psychic abilities are well known. She's been in numerous cable-TV videos and news documentaries. Too bad she had some trouble with the law in the late 1990s, allegedly threatening a former friend and housemate with the concealed weapon she kept on her person for protection against death threats. Despite being cleared of any wrongdoing, Cabot's public reputation suffered mightily.

The Brits have their share of contemporary pagan attention-mongers, too: like Kevin Carlyon, a media-savvy man who has proclaimed himself "The High Priest of British White Witches," and therefore a spokesperson for all of the pagan community, who seems to always be the go-to guy for quotes on any topic regarding paganism or witchcraft in the Britiish tabloids. Unfortunately he tends to say and do some very ridiculous things, and his general arrogance and outrageous demeanor has alienated his entire community.

Are you noticing a pattern here?

Not only have these attention-seeking pagans, witches and occultists received their share of negative media attention, but a great many of them have earned the scorn of the pagan community as well. Now, that scorn may be the result of jealousy or resentment, unconscious or otherwise; sour grapes is sour grapes. But when well-meaning people are targeted with derision as a direct result of their public speech, it might be time to reflect upon what kind of impression we want to make to the public. There's nothing wrong with being a pagan pariah if you want to be a pagan pariah; but since modern witchcraft is already a topic riddled with prejudice and stereotypes, it'd be nice if the rest of us didn't have to constantly do damage control just so we can be taken seriously or, you know, keep our jobs.

I have nothing against Christian's desire for some attention; he's a smart guy, a savvy and successful businessman, and he's worked hard to be where he is today. But I do think the pagan community at large tends to not appreciate it when one person speaks for all of us in the context of a sensational media story. Sadly, such outlets tend to misquote or manipulate what is said, so that even if someone does not claim to be speaking for the entire pagan community, the media will spin it that way because, oh I don't know, they love to piss us off. So it's advisable to think twice before you talk to the media, because they're not always interested in portraying us sympathetically. Obviously.

It's not hard for contemporary pagans to brush off these kinds of silly stories when they appear. But unfortunately, a goodly portion of the general public formulates their perceptions and opinions based on what they see on TV or the internet. The media loves a good juicy occult story; look at how they tried to make mass murderer Jared Loughner into an "occultist" when bags of potting soil, rotten oranges, a plastic skull and burned out seven-day candles were found in his backyard. As if being a mass murderer wasn't bad enough!

Charlie Sheen is no warlock; but he's a Hollywood celebrity whose words are the source of rabid media attention right now. This could possibly be an opportunity to explain the origins and diverse connotations of the word "warlock." But I don't think it's a good time to suggest magically binding someone. It's far too easy for the media to spin this in ways that make contemporary witches and occult practitioners look even loonier than we usually do.

For move coverage on this story, check out, and The Wild Hunt blog.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Spirit of Albion: a new pagan film!

A number of years ago, I met a pagan musician named Damh Smith (also known as Damh the Bard) at a summer solstice ritual at the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire, England. That's when I first heard the song "The Spirit of Albion" from his third CD of the same name. We struck up an occasional email correspondence, and when I learned he would be playing in Glastonbury while I was going to be there, he offered to put me on the guest list. little did I know this event was nothing less than the annual OBOD Eisteddfodd! It was grand, food and drink everywhere and some of the best bardic performances, both singing and spoken word, I've seen by pagans anywhere. Damh's music is well-loved among UK pagans and finding an audience in the U.S. Plus, Damh is just a cool guy.

Damh is now involved in making a pagan-themed film called THE SPIRIT OF ALBION with producer-director Gary Andrews. Gary graciously agreed to an email interview about the project.

TWH: How did the idea for making THE SPIRIT OF ALBION come about? Is it mainly based on Damh's song of the same name?

GA: The film began life as a devised theatre piece for a Youth Theatre Workshop that I run. Every summer we put on a show and in Sept 2009 we decided we would like to do a 'musical' for performance in July 2010. I have been a long time fan (and friend) of Damh and have always found his work to be very inspiring so I played some of his stuff to the group and they instantly fell in love with it. We decided to choose 10 tracks (5 for each act) that when we put them in a certain order told a story. From these we developed characters and improvised scenes and slowly put together the final script. It was performed for three nights in a tiny studio theatre and went down very well, especially with the members of the pagan community who came to see it. It was their suggestion that I should take the show further that got me thinking about adapting it into a film. We also did another 'live' performance of the show in November, this time at Witchfest International, at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon to an audience of around 200. Again - it met with a very positive response.

The song 'The Spirit of Albion' itself is used as the finale in the play - a summing up of the joy and energy of the story and as such seemed a fitting title for the show itself.

TWH: What kind of challenges are you facing making this independent film?

GA: I guess the usual challenges faced by all independent film-makers, the main one being how to get the best results of a very low budget! I am very lucky in that I have many friends who are actors and artists of all sorts, as well as many student friends studying media and so on - so casting and crewing has been fairly straightforward. We have given the film a fairly lengthy pre-production period in order to make sure that all the details are well in place so that once filming begins, things can go as smoothly as possible. Another challenge will be dealing with the British weather through the summer (we start shooting on 30th April and wrap on 11th Sept, with 20 shooting days dotted about in there) as much of the film happens outside. We shall just have to hope that the Gods are smiling on us!!

THW: Do you think your work might inspire more pagan filmmakers?

GA: I hope so. It would be lovely to think that people would be inspired to go out and be creative themselves having seen our film. And not just film-makers - playwrights, singer songwriters, painters too. We (Damh and I) have chatted about how there really aren't that many films out there that show the modern pagan lifestyle in a true or positive light, so the sense of responsibility on our shoulders whilst making this film is ever present!

TWH: What makes the story told in this film relevant to contemporary pagans?

GA: Well, the 3 main characters are young, modern people with the kind of problems that are very real today. One, Esther, is working in a high powered, pressured job with no real life outside of work and has reached breaking point. The second, Annie, is a damaged young woman who works in a job she hates (animal testing) and has taken refuge in drugs and casual sex rather than face her reality. Finally we have George, an anti war activist who is fighting the guilt that his soldier brother was killed in Afghanistan and the last time they spoke they had a fight about their life choices. All 3 of them, on the same day (Oct 31st) have a meeting with a stranger who turns out not to be what they first appear. Added into the mix is Annie's brother, a Christian priest who is having doubts about his vocation. All of these characters are given a chance to see things a different way, through the filter of the Pagan perspective and all of them have a life-changing experience, although not everything turns out as you might expect!

Our aim was, first and foremost, to tell a good story - if at the same time the 'message' gets across too, then that is a bonus.

TWH: What are your plans for exhibiting and distributing the film?

GA: Well, first and foremost it will be a DVD release (both PAL and NTSC) and will be available to buy online via the official website. DVD will be the best way to experience the film as there will be plenty of extras on the disc (commentaries, behind the scenes and more). I am also starting to turn my thoughts to film festivals and so on. Perhaps later on we will also look at other online outlets (itunes, DVD baby etc) but right now I am mostly focused on making the film to the best of my abilities!

Stay tuned for more updates on this exciting project. And be sure to check out THE SPIRIT OF ALBION website for great photos of the locations and actors, and more information on the production.