witches&pagans #20

Title:  Witches & Pagans (formerly newWitch):  Earthwise Spirituality for Today #20—The Animal Issue

Publisher:  BBI Media, Spring 2010

Editor:  Anne Newkirk Niven

Pages:  96 pp.

Price:  $6 US

This second issue of witches&pagans, after the merger of newWitch and PanGaia, has a great deal of interest in it.  This particular issue is focused on animals, and thus there are quite a few articles in it dealing with totemic practices.  However, there are other things in it that are intriguing as well.

Several letters to the editor deal with pagans in prison, and how difficult their lives are due to their lack of access to trained chaplains, reading material, and basic ritual supplies.  A few of these letters are by prison inmates themselves, while others are by support staff, including a librarian who implores readers to consider making donations of pagan-specific and pagan-interest books to prison libraries, which would be a most noble way to lend some support to our incarcerated co-religionists.  Considering the high profile of the Patrick McCollum prison chaplaincy case in the California Corrections system, this is an issue that cannot be over-emphasized at present.

On the cover, there is no indication of what the contents of this issue of the magazine happen to be, other than the statement of the theme and a near-full-page piece of artwork.  The two feature articles are “Lupa:  Fang, Bone & Spirit” by Phil “Satyr(blade)” Brucato, and “Witches & Seeresses” by Michael Night Sky.  The first article is an interview, with lavish accompanying photos, of Lupa, the author and editor of a number of books dealing with animal magic, totemism, cultural appropriation and related (as well as not-as-directly-related) magical topics.  The second is an interview with Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone on their Progressive Witchcraft projects, emphasizing polytheism and trance work, in contrast to some of their earlier Alexandrian Wicca-derived practices.  While there is certainly value in the latter, it seems quite out-of-place, given this issue’s theme, to include such an article as one of the main features, particularly since Farrar and Bone do not address the theme at all, and in fact the interview itself was done in late 2008 and revised in late 2009.

The interview article on Lupa and her work is excellent, and gives a good flavor of what this very prolific and innovative author has done.  However, there is somewhat unfortunate phrasing in a few of the questions:  Brucato asks “How do you reach out to the Wild within?”  While this might seem innocent enough, despite the somewhat unexpected capitalization, two things somewhat slant this question and what follows in the opinion of the present reviewer.  Brucato himself writes for White Wolf Games; and Lupa admits (in a summary paragraph preceding the actual interview) one of her early interests and influences on her neopagan path was White Wolf’s Werewolf:  The Apocalypse role-playing game setting.  In that particular setting, The Wild is one of three primal forces with which characters have to deal in their various struggles.  It is certainly possible for modern pagans — influenced by White Wolf products or otherwise — to have a concept of a deified or abstracted force of nature governing all wilderness and non-human life and landscape called The Wild.  The present reviewer is uncertain whether the capitalizations in Lupa’s answer to this question were intentional or not, or whether this interview took place in person and was recorded and transcribed, or if it was done over e-mail, and thus whether this capitalization was the prerogative of the article author transcribing, or that of Lupa as the composer of her own responses, following the lead of the interviewer.  While the present reviewer has played and enjoyed White Wolf games as well, and doesn’t think poorly of those who also enjoy them, to mix this kind of role-playing terminology into what should be a serious discussion of spirituality — however small a role a few capitalized “W”s might seem to play — is a little disappointing.  Unfortunately, many people (including a number of pagans, on which more later) do think that those who have role-playing-like elements in their spirituality are simply deluded and not serious, and lack actual and legitimate spiritual experience or insight.  This is certainly not the case with Lupa, and this insight comes through in her work and in her presentations at conferences and other occasions.  One of the larger points of Lupa’s work is to include pop cultural influences very consciously and deliberately in one’s spirituality.  Without a direct indication of whether or not this was the intention at this point, it’s anyone’s guess as to what might have been going on there.

There are a variety of interesting observations and assertions made by Farrar and Bone in their interview.  Apart from one answer to a question (on how they feel about being considered elders in the pagan tradition), all of their answers are first-person plural (i.e. “we,” “our,” etc.), which seems a bit strange, considering the very different personages, backgrounds, and experiences the two of them possess — surely, they are individuals!?!  At one point, they speak about “the Callaighe, a pre-Celtic goddess of death and rebirth” (p. 45).  While the place-name in Ireland to which they refer does have various legends attached to it involving a magical old woman, who may very well derive from a pre-Christian goddess, proving that such a figure is pre-Celtic is essentially impossible, particularly since the Old Irish caillech, “veiled woman,” emerges semantically in a context which makes it better translated as “nun” rather than “hag.”

Following these articles, another feature article follows by Natalie Zaman, “Wandering Witch’s Adventures in The Big Apple,” which also has photos by the author.  It’s an interesting article, with lots of suggestions for places to visit and resources for pagans within the city (and some of its surrounding areas), as well as some important historical background on a few well-known places in NYC like The Magickal Childe.  However, the present reviewer would again question the inclusion of this article in an issue ostensibly devoted to animals, since none are mentioned.  (An article on the totem animals of New York City, or indeed any urban area, would have been more than appropriate in an issue devoted to this topic.)

Fiction and poetry included in this issue, while somewhat interesting and definitely on topic, seemed less appealing than an equal amount of space given to further relevant articles would have been.  Kiva Rose’s “Our Totems, Ourselves” makes the point that totems choose humans, and not vice versa, but leans a bit heavily on the author’s personal experience to state this as a universal truth.  Likewise, Nora L. Jamieson’s “A Human Animal” is a bit rambling in its various stories of life and death observed among the animal kingdom near human habitation, with the ultimate lessons being “The sacred and the mundane, the predator and prey, life and death; it is all one” (p. 61).  Such monistic statements suffuse a great deal of the material in this particular issue of the magazine, and modern pagan spirituality generally .… But how true is such a statement; and, more importantly, even if it is in some sense true, how appealing is it for some people, and how necessary is it to say it if it is true?  Unfortunately, the platitude remains where actual theological engagement is lacking in far too many instances.

A few of the regular columns produce some good material in this issue.  Isaac Bonewits’ “Connection and Causation:  Dualism is Nonsense — And Incompatible with Magic” is useful, and grounded in scientific principles; Galina Krasskova’s “What About Our Stuff?  Death is Not the End of Our Magical Obligations” is also an important and somewhat sobering look at creating a will and allotting proper deposition or distribution of one’s magical supplies after one’s death.  Both of these are good columns, but again, not really on the overarching theme of the issue.  (If the theme is departed from this regularly, can it really be considered a theme?)  Kenaz Filan’s “Animal Offerings:  Your Pet Can Link You to the Gods” is a good, brief treatment of ways in which one’s pets can be living offerings of devotion to one’s gods through taking care of them, or of helping animal charities and such for those who cannot keep pets for whatever reason.

Unfortunately, R. J. Stewart’s “Totems are Not Fashion Accessories” is more of a screed and an advertisement for his own theological anthropology and work than a coherent article.  “… as Pagans, to be really effective, we must also reject animal totemism, kick out neo-shamanistic psychologized symbolism, and undo cozy stereotypes about magical animal, faery, and plant helpers” (p. 75).  Stewart’s suggestion for a replacement is his own concept of the “Threefold Alliance,” where all humans are considered incomplete and only a third of a complete being until they have fully merged their consciousness with a faery ally and a spiritual creature.  While there are some differences in terminology involved, the present reviewer isn’t seeing how this is any different from some concepts of totemic practice and deity patronage, apart from positing that it is our spiritual duty to search out not our “other half,” but our spiritual “other thirds” in order to be whole and healthy beings.  As a possible alternative amongst many ways to understand one’s identity, this may have some appeal and utility; as a categorical statement of how things are and what everyone must therefore do about it (and a flimsily supported one at that), this is about as appealing as the idea that all humans are under the curse of original sin.

Other minutiae in this issue could be expounded upon, but this should give a good flavor for what is found therein.  A bit more rigor in certain cases would have been preferable in some of the articles.  While witches&pagans is not The Pomegranate, and shouldn’t attempt to be so, it also wouldn’t hurt to be a bit more critical and do more fact-checking in relation to certain matters than seem to be the norm at present.  This magazine is good, light pagan reading, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you won’t be disappointed.

[Phillip A. Bernhardt-House is a guest professor in the history department of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.  Phillip’s academic publications include articles in Béascna, Foilsiú,Cosmos:  The Yearbook of the Traditional Cosmology Society, Journal for the Academic Study of Magic, and the Celtic Studies Association of North America Yearbook, as well as several anthologies and conference proceedings volumes, and articles in Parabola and Thorn.  A monograph based on Phillip’s dissertation, on Celtic dogs, wolves, werewolves, and dogheads, will be published in 2010 by The Edwin Mellen Press.]

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