Thursday, September 29, 2011


You can't "own" a word. People will call themselves whatever they please, and you can either go with the flow, or fight a battle you will eventually lose, or have already lost, though you can't admit it. Once a word is out of the box, it's impossible to put that word back in the box.

About two thousand years ago there was this guy named Paul who walked around the Roman Empire preaching about a guy he called "Jesus" and proclaiming a new religion he called "Christianity." There were a lot of people who liked Paul's message and also began calling themselves Christians.

Back in Jerusalem the brother of Jesus (named James) heard about the things Paul was preaching about and sent out his own missionaries to correct the things Paul was saying. Unfortunately for James, the people who liked what Paul had to say ignored James' definition, even though he (James) was the acknowledged leader of the Christian Church and the brother of Jesus. James couldn't control the use of the word Christian.

Later there were people who called themselves "Christians" even though their definition of the word was different from Paul. Even in his lifetime Paul began to lose ownership of the word Christian, just like James. For centuries the Catholic Church thought that it owned the word "Christian" but Martin Luther challenged that notion, and won. He created a whole different kind of Christianity, one that existed side by side with the one mostly created by the Catholic Church. Since Martin Luther other people have challenged the ownership of the word Christian, and have won.

My Christian friends won't like this, but basically anyone who worships Jesus can call themselves a Christian. That's the precedent established by Paul when he established his gentile-loving version of the faith. Sure there are probably a few other qualifications, and there are still people who challenge the ownership of the word, but they tend to lose those arguments.

(Curiously enough the people who feel as if they own the word "Christianity" are the last ones to the party. The evangelical movement is about 100 years old, yet it's those folks who are the loudest about proclaiming who is and who is not a Christian. You think it would be the Catholic Church, or perhaps the Greek Orthodox Church, the older established churches, but no, it's the newest one.)

In Contemporary Paganism a similar war is being fought over the word "Wicca." I was having lunch with a few friends on Friday and we began talking about the word "Wicca." One of them reminded me that the word "Wicca" only refers to initiates who walk a traditional path. Generally many of those traditional paths are lumped together as "BTW" (British Traditional Witchcraft). The most well known BTW groups are Gardnerian and Alexandrian, but there are several more. The point that was being made was that to call yourself "Wiccan" you had to be an initiated member of a traditional group.

My friends over at the amberandjet Yahoo group have summarized this definition of Wicca better than I ever could(1):

"The term "Wicca" refers specifically to the lineaged, initiatory mystery religion with roots in the New Forest region of Great Britain, manifested today through various "traditions" all linked with a common ancestry back to the New Forest area. "Wiccans" or "The Wica" are the properly lineaged, properly initiated members of those Traditions."

The definition from Amber and Jet is extremely clear, and on that particular email list, it's the definition accepted by all of its members when they post there. I am a member of Amber and Jet and when I use the word "Wicca" amongst those folks it's the definition I adhere to, though I disagree with it, all while thinking they are right. I know, I'm trying to have my cake and eat it too, but I'll explain.

I agree with the Amber and Jet definition because I can see their point. For decades, the only way to become a Wiccan was to meet other Wiccans and then undergo an initiation. There were no printed rituals, no forums of exchange. The ideas that constitute Wicca were only available to a limited, and hopefully select, few who underwent training and participated in an initiation ceremony. Wicca was something that was sometimes written about, but its rituals remained secret. There were no "do it yourself Wicca" books.

The "cat getting out of the bag" can probably be traced to a specific few in the BTW Movement.  Michael Howard writes in his book "Modern Wicca" (which is must reading if you are a Pagan History Buff like myself) that his High Priestess had him send his book Book of Shadows to an American woman, and that they then initiated her by proxy.  In fairness passing The Craft to Americans in the 60's and 70's was fraught with challenges, but it shouldn't have surprised anyone when that American broke her oath of secrecy and printed the BoS sent to her.  That was in the early 70's, and from that point on "Wiccan Rituals" were easy to find and accessible to anyone.*

While some of the ritual that makes up BTW has been leaked, there is still a lot out there that has never been published.  It's a secret, initiatory thing, and as a result it has wisdom in it going back generations.  Much of that wisdom exists off the printed page and in the hearts and minds of its Priests and Priestesses.  Even if someone broke their oaths and published everything, there would still be parts of it unknown to those who have just read about it.

What's important for our purposes here is that once a book is published with the words Wicca, Witch, or Witchcraft on it, the word begins to change meanings.  How many books are out there with the word "Wicca" in them unrelated to BTW?  I'd guess hundreds, maybe even a thousand.  It becomes impossible to tell someone who has a house full of books with "Wicca" in the title who has been following those volumes for fifteen years and self identifies as a "Wiccan" that they aren't a Wiccan  If you read a book called "Wiccan Rituals" and then practice those rituals for ten years, it would make sense to call yourself a Wiccan.  It's as simple as that.

Sometime in the late 70's and early 80's people began calling themselves Wiccan regardless of initiation. Because most people probably experience Modern Paganism through books (or over the internet), especially twenty to thirty years ago, people began to call themselves Wiccan due to what they read.  Raymond Buckland's The Tree was published in 1973 and is basically a do it yourself version of Wicca that doesn't require an initiation.  How do you tell that practitioner that they aren't what they think they are, especially when a book justifies their thinking.

While I think we've sometimes gotten a little too liberal with the use of the word "Wicca," I'm of the mind that as long as the practitioners call four quarters/elements/watchtowers, cast a circle, honor at least a Goddess, but preferably a Goddess and a God, and celebrate cakes and ale, they can probably use the term "Wicca" to describe their ritual and themselves.  I understand why traditional groups get outraged by this, but I don't know how you reclaim ownership of a word.  To reclaim it, you'd literally have to shut down, burn a million books, and delete countless internet pages.  In other words, it can't be done in the United States.  You can't control the flow of information, so you can't control the use and definition of a word.

Don't believe me?  Ask Jesus and James how they feel about today's "Christianity."  

1.    As was pointed out to me by the writer of the Amber and Jet definition of Wicca, I left out the first nine words in their definition, that first sentence states ""For the purposes of the Amber and Jet list, the term "Wicca" refers...."   I thought I had referenced that elsewhere in the piece, I was wrong, which is commonplace for me.  

*Gardner's BoS was published back in the 1960's by other oath-breakers, and even outright thieves, but it never became super easily accessible.  Those pirated versions weren't for sale at the mall.   

Friday, September 23, 2011

Ritual Essentials.

A friend of mine was asking me about my thoughts on ritual the other week,* more specifically what I think are essential elements of ritual. I don't think I gave her a very good answer, so I thought I would sketch out some thoughts on the old blog. These thoughts are about rituals I control, meaning Eclectic Pagan (Wiccan in style) Rituals. I'm not in a position to change/amend/criticize rituals in tradition(s) I'm a part of, that would be a different post.

Rituals Should Be Interactive

There are times when ritual calls for just watching or listening to someone. I understand that, but those times should be kept to a bare minimum. There are many layers to ritual that sometimes appear to just be watching and listening when they are something else entirely. Yes, you probably don't say anything when people call the quarters, but if you are opening yourself up to them, you are doing something. Just because you don't speak the words means you are absent from the process.

This comes up again when people Call to the Goddess and God. Yes, you are probably not the one actively reading the Call, but you need to be open to it. Your heart and spirit should be focused on the same goal as the Priest or Priestess reading the Call. Now that person reading the Call does have an obligation to you the ritual go-er, and that's to be familiar with the material and to speak loud enough so that everyone can hear them. If they are stumbling over words constantly or whispering in a circle containing thirty people they are not engaging everyone in the process.

This applies again to like The Charge of the Goddess and God. When I hear someone recite the Charge of the Goddess I'm fully engaged. It's a "moment" in ritual, but only when it's done right. I've seen people complimented post-ritual after a good Charge-reading; like it was their own personal highlight of the ritual. That's awesome, and that means someone made the Charge engrossing and personal to everyone in the circle.

What doesn't work is when people "preach" in the circle. I'm very proud of you for understanding the Wheel of the Year, but you don't need to go through the whole thing for me here and now. It's Midsummer and you lost me at Yule. That kind of stuff is not engaging. Ritual should never be about the individual, it should be about the gods and the turn of the Wheel. If you keep the focus on those things everyone will be on the same page. (I've been guilty of this kind of stuff, that's how we learn.)

I've been in all kinds of circles with "acting" and "plays" in them (I tend to call that "sacred drama") and it's been absorbing because the people doing it understood that it was about the gods. They weren't afraid to embarrass themselves if the drama called for it, they weren't putting themselves out there, they were putting the gods out there. If you can't be open to seeing what the gods and Mother Earth want to show you, that's not the fault of the presenters. Yes those type of presentations can bog down, but people who do "good" ritual understand that, and move it along. Sacred Drama is almost always best when it leads to something else.

That something else always needs to be more than just handing someone a leaf and explaining the power of autumn. Let people feel the power of the seasons, don't tell them about it. Make them do something with that leaf, guide them on the path, but let those in the ritual help to create the experience.

Some of the things that are necessary components of ritual are extremely un-engaging, perhaps even boring. Back in Michigan we started a tradition where we purified our ritual salt and water before our rites began. No one needs to hear Ari say "thrice measured" a bunch of times, we can get through that quietly while everyone is getting ready for ritual. When we start ritual we want to start ritual. Get everyone in the circle, have them take a few cleansing breaths and then go off to the races.**

A friend of mine suggested that great ritual usually has two things going on simultaneously, and she's right. When someone calls the quarters you listen to them do it, but you reach out to those powers as well. The same thing goes for calling the Lord and Lady or charging an object. If the ritual becomes a thing where you are "just listening" waiting for someone to finish a long soliloquy you might as well be watching TV.

Rituals Should Have a Taste of the Familiar

I'll be honest, back when I wrote a new ritual for every sabbat I tended to re-write nearly every word every time. For years, I wrote a new Beltane Ritual each April/May, constantly trying to bring in new thoughts, ideas, and poetic flourishes. My friend who originally asked me about rituals and started this whole exercise was rather surprised. "Why didn't you just re-use the ones that worked?" she asked. That's a good question, maybe it's because I like a challenge, or because I feel like that might bore people. I can just imagine the "this is the part where Jason is going to _____" whispering in the circle.

So while I like to create new rituals and use new words, almost every ritual I've ever created has a taste of the familiar. Most of those familiar elements are expected ones: I call four quarters, cast a circle, reach out to the Goddess and God, celebrate Cakes and Ale, etc. While the words might change, the process doesn't very much. It's "ritual" because it's usually the same things over and over, I just like to change the wording.

The familiar is very important during ritual, it gives everyone that common language, and it allows people to "follow along" as the ritual progresses. It's OK to hit a curveball now again, but you don't want to change the sport. That's why I don't like it when someone starts calling out to angels in ritual, or uses a dragon when calling the South. Those are game-changers, and really mess with the energy in a circle and the expectations of those gathered in the circle.

If you advertise a "Wiccan" ritual you don't want to start inserting large amounts of Lakota Liturgy into your ritual. It might sound cool, hell it might even be cool, but at that point you're changing the game. Ritual should be easy to follow.

At Yule once, we began the ritual with the majority of the circle locked out of the ritual space. We called the quarters, cast the circle and completely created sacred space. I called down the God and began the ritual as the now deceased Lord of the Sun waiting to arise once more. When we allowed everyone into the ritual space it was obvious that I had thrown them a curveball, but it was Yule, and the drama we were sharing was expected and easy to pick up on. The sense of being "lost" lasted about all of fifteen seconds for those who weren't with us when we called quarters etc.

While I enjoy playing with language a bit, there are certain phrases and expressions which are expected, these are things which people like to say. While I might rewrite a quarter call to express the darkness of Yule, I still to end it with "Blessed Be" or "So Mote It Be," people like saying those things. Ending a quarter call with "Namaste" would be unexpected and would break up the trance ritual is sometimes meant to become. (Doing the same things again and again in mostly the same order trains the mind to act a certain way, in the case of ritual those repeated actions train the mind to prepare for deity and to honor the Earth.)

I love liturgy, while I might rewrite some things, there are parts of ritual I nearly always want to hear and experience, most notably the Charge and Charge of the Goddess. With only a couple of exceptions (Yule usually if it's light-hearted) it's a part of almost every ritual Ari and I do. Apparently a lot of people out here (West) only recite the Charges at esbats, I think they are even more important at sabbats. So this is an essential thing to Ari and I, and I've often made her read the Charge of the Goddess to me post-ritual if it was not included in the rite. It's transformative to me, and completely engrossing.

Now I have done completely off the wall, insane, genre defying rituals, but I've always warned everyone first. One of my favorite "unique" rituals is one I call the 1899 Ritual, it uses only words and concepts from 1899 and before. We call the quarters like Masons, cast the circle like the Golden Dawn, and use bits and pieces of "Aradia" for the rite in the middle. For the Charge of the Goddess I've used "Hertha" by Charles Algernon Swinburne. Really unexpected and different stuff, but it's always been spelled out in advance.

Cakes and Ale Should Have Meaning

Cakes and Ale (or Cakes and Wine) is an essential part of ritual to me, and it serves many functions. More and more it serves as a convenient place to insert (add jokes here) the Great Rite. Most rituals don't include the actual Great Rite (ritual penetration), and instead feature a symbolic one, usually involving an athame and a chalice. Since the chalice is often a part of the cakes and ale ceremony, putting the Great Rite in this spot has become very natural to most Pagans.

The Great Rite is one of the defining moments of (Wiccan) Pagan Spirituality. It symbolizes the union of Lord and Lady, the union that provides the bounty and blessings we have here on Earth. Without their joining we'd have no crops, no bread, no drink, no life, the cosmic cycle would completely stop. As an acknowledgement of all they have given us, and continue to give us I find it imperative.

I see Cakes and Ale as a continuation of the Great Rite, it's a celebration of what that union gives to us. It has to be more than the eating of random cookies, followed by a slug or two of grape juice. If cakes and ale is just a motion, a routine in ritual, than it has no meaning. When I have my "cakes," I imagine fields of grain, the warm sun bringing that field to life, the rains providing sustenance, it's a moment of pure reflection and it takes me back to our agrarian origins.

While I'm not insensitive to the needs of individuals who avoid alcohol, the ceremony here is called Cakes and Ale (or Wine). Alcohol is a mysterious substance, it not only nourishes the body, it intoxicates the brain. It is something that effects us on a physical and mental level. It has a warmth, power, and energy unique to its self. Yes, there are some people who need to avoid it, and having an alternative there for them is of course necessary, but I'm always annoyed at circles that go too far the other way.

There are many theories as to why our hunter-gatherer ancestors stopped wandering around and set up towns. Two of them are of special interest to me. One theory proposes that people began growing food to provide sustenance for religious pilgrims. The first cities weren't really cities, they were shrines, pilgrimage sites, and people began growing food to feed them. The second one is that people liked to drink, and they wanted access to alcohol at all times, so they began controlling their environment to make that happen. Both theories are even compatible (alcohol with the religious rites).

With the exception of water and breast milk we've been drinking alcohol longer than anything else. In that sense, it's sacred, special, something that harkens back to our very origins as people. I like to use it in ritual to remind me of all of that. For Ari and I the use of alcohol in ritual is an essential, and should always be an option in the circle, just like an alternative should always be an option.***

Those three things are my biggies. Give every aspect of your ritual meaning, keep everyone engaged, and make sure it speaks the language of ritual known to most people in your circle.

*Truth, it was actually a few weeks ago, but I've been busy writing presentations and preparing other things.

**That can be a bit different when doing smaller group rituals in an established circle or coven. These are more guidelines/ideas for bigger public rituals, the kind where you have all levels of experience and not everyone knows your name.

***I have had rituals where we've used things other than alcohol, namely milk at Imbolc or Ostara. My ideal "Wheel of the Year" told through Ales and Wines would look like this:

Samhain-Red Wine
Ostara-White Wine
Beltane-A Red Fruit Wine
Midsummer-White Beer
Lammas-Pear Cider
Mabon-Apple Cider

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On Clergy, Funerals, Death, and Dying.

Over the last fifteen years I've performed numerous weddings/handfastings, led probably a hundred rituals, and have sat on several "religious panels" where I've more than held my own with Jewish Rabbis, Catholic Priests, and both Mainline Protestant and Evangelical Preachers. More quietly I've spoken to newspapers in the United States, Canada, and Australia, I was even quoted in Newsweek Magazine once on Paganism. I've also organized several Pagan groups, picnics, and gatherings. I'm also a pretty good lecturer, and have given lectures on both coasts, in Middle America, and up into Canada. For the most part I know what I'm talking about while I lecture too. In short, for the last fifteen years I've functioned in much of the way traditional clergy in monotheistic religions do.

Nearly everything I've done, I've managed to do well. While I wouldn't say I have a "big booming voice" I know how to project, whether that's in a church performing a wedding* or in a large outdoor circle with a 100 people. With the exception of my long hair, I strive to come across as a fairly ordinary person. There are many in my community who tend to dress only in black or as if they are on their way to the Renaissance Faire. I'm most comfortable in sandals, a hoodie, and cargo shorts. Despite my non-traditional religious leanings, I live with one foot in the mundane world, and I know how to talk to that world.

When performing a "public service" (like a wedding) my ability to walk in both the Pagan World and the Non-Magickal World comes in very handy. With only a few exceptions, the majority of marriage ceremonies I've performed have been "stealth Pagan." Most couples get married in front of a very large group of people, and a great many of those people are not Pagan, especially parents. As a result, couples usually ask me to slip some Pagan language in there, while keeping the ceremony religion neutral. What usually happens is that the Pagans in the audience know that I've inserted something in there that reflects our tradition, but the rest of the audience views the service as agnostic. When the service is over I find that born-again Aunt Matilda is pretty comfortable talking to me. It works for everyone involved.

While I've done numerous things in Pagandom, the one thing I've never done is a memorial or funeral service. I've always known that I'd have to do one eventually, but I thought I had another ten years or so before it would come up. I don't have ten years, as of today I have one week and four days. A good friend of mine out here lost her husband to suicide a few weeks ago and she asked me to perform the service. She has two young boys. I'm not often at a loss for words**, right now I find myself at a loss for words.

My friend's husband was not a religious man, so we'll be keeping "religion" in the ceremony to a bare minimum. There will certainly be moments that reflect Pagan Traditions (she's Pagan, and services are as much, if not more so, for the living than the dead), and I might use scripture from other traditions as well. I'm willing to use anything that might comfort someone in need. Unfortunately, when trying to create a mourning service that bridges traditions, I find myself struggling with a lack of resources.

There are all kinds of Pagan funeral rites out there, but they are explicitly Pagan, and most of them feel like they would require everyone in attendance to show up in ritual robes. As a result, the vast Jason library is failing me right now. There are a multitude of resources on-line for Christian funerals, and many of those have been helpful, but I refuse to journey down the cliche of "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."

In addition to the struggle of crafting a religious/non-religious service, I'm also dealing with the very sensitive issue of suicide. (An issue made even more sensitive because of two younger children.) It's less difficult to eulogize someone when they've died from circumstances you almost understand. Talking about a fight with cancer, while painful, is at least something the majority of us can comprehend. When we lose a loved one to old age or even a car accident we are able to rationalize that to some degree. When someone takes their own life, leaving behind a loving wife and two sons . . . . . that becomes harder to talk about.

Ninety percent of suicide cases are related to mental illness (and severe depression is a mental illness), and in this particular case I have no doubt that the gentleman in question was suffering from some sort of sickness. Knowing that he wasn't in control of his own actions and that he died from something he was powerless against makes his death a bit more understandable. He was a victim, like a person can be the victim of cancer or a shooting. This man was a victim of his mind rebelling against his best interests. Knowing that he wasn't rational when he took his own life makes acceptance easier, but it doesn't solve the inherent problem of language in this instance. Suicide just isn't easy to talk about, and everything I've read the past week advises against mentioning it when young people are involved (there are several instances of "copy cat" suicides in such circumstances, talking about it can make it seem glamorous).

Without a "religion well" to go to again and again I've been combing the internet and my library for poems and reflections to use in next Saturday's service. Previously, I had assumed that since funerals and memorial services are pretty common, that there would be a plethora of "good poems" out there that might reflect the feelings of the friends and families in times like these. I was wrong. Most funeral poetry either falls along the lines of "go on with your life, I'm gone now" or "I'm still here, but like a whisper in the wind." Neither strikes the right balance, and many of them deal with circumstances unrelated to the ones I find myself dealing with. I have settled on some to use next week, but "settled" is the right word.

(Some of you might be wondering if other people are going to speak at this memorial besides myself, the answer is yes of course, but right now we only have two other individuals. Everything I've read has advised against an "open mic" policy, because of the terrible pain in circumstances like this. People are far more likely to be angry over death instead of grieving, and that's not something you want children to witness.)

While I feel confident in my ability to minister next saturday and lead a credible tribute, I'm reminded of how limited my own dealings with death have been. I have never had a best friend die, or a relative I knew well die "before their time." I did have a friend die once from a drug overdose, and while I adored her and still her cherish her memory, it had been several months since I had seen her last. Her death was painful mostly because she was so very young, not because she was a regular part of my life.

In high school the most popular guy in my class died during the summer between my sophomore and junior years. I was shocked by his passing, but I was also out of town on a church trip when it happened and had no way of getting back home to his funeral. My absence from his funeral and the grief of my classmates made his death seem less real, and it wasn't until several months later that it truly hit me. Because of I didn't attend his funeral, I didn't even visit his grave until right before I left Tennessee, when his loss hit me all over again.

My grandparents both died in their late 70's and early 80's. My grandmother's death was out of the blue, and surprising, but she had lived a good long life, and while I still cry about her passing, and smile at her memory, I know that she did not suffer. My grandfather died after my grandmother, also unexpected, but in some ways it probably came as a relief to him. He had been married to my grandmother for over 50 years, in some ways time stopped for him when she died, and I'm sure he was happy to be reunited with her.

To be truthful the most painful death I've gone through was that of my cat Princess. Her passing was hard because we had spent fourteen years together. I also had to watch her waste away from an aggressive mouth cancer. Much like my grandmother, that cat lived a crazy long life, and she lived most of it in perfect health. For a cat, her's was a pretty good run, but that knowledge did not make it any easier.

I mention those deaths because they are nearly+ all of my limited experience with death. I think this makes me ill-prepared to some degree to deal with it in a ministerial fashion. I can only hope (and pray) that I make the right choices, say the right things, and try to do the best that I can next Saturday. In order to do that I will do what I always do: work hard, study, research, and do my best to live up to the great expectations others have in me.

*Yes, I've done weddings in churches and chapels. I've even done a straight Christian wedding.

** I can only think of a few instances when I've been at a loss for words. Many of them were during relationship troubles and joys with Ari. The only other instance I can think of is after seeing the awesomeness that was "The Dark Knight."

+Nearly, because I had a church counselor I was very fond of die of cancer. I miss you Harry.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


In high school my favorite bands were Aerosmith, Dokken, Tesla, and Anthrax. (I didn't really fall in love with Led Zeppelin until my senior year, we've been going steady ever since.) All four of those bands survived the intervening years in some way or another. Aerosmith probably survived with the most commercial success, and due to Stephen Tyler on American Idol they'll probably blow up all over again next summer. Tesla took a very long hiatus from rock after 1995, but began releasing albums again about six or seven years ago, and all of them have been stellar. They remain one of the few bands that has never released a "bad" record.

The other two bands on my list have had varying degrees of mediocrity and failure. Dokken put out a great record in 1995, and then dissolved a few years later. That band still tours, but absent half of its original members. Lead singer Don Dokken has put on a ton of weight and now chain smokes during concerts, as a result his voice is absolute crap. It's kind of embarrassing to be a fan of an ass-clown, but I have trouble setting behind my childhood and the music I cherish from that era.

Somewhat more troubling is the band Anthrax, and for a number of reasons. Anthrax was the one "metal" band of the 1980's that should have been just as huge in the 1990's and beyond. They weren't a hair band, they were a thrash metal band, and they anticipated the eventual merger of rock and rap that would result in platinum records for shitbags like Limp Bizkit by ten years. They even had a video and radio hit with "Bring the Noise" guest-starring Public Enemy back in 1991 (they later toured with PE too). I wouldn't say Anthrax were pioneers, but they liked a lot of stuff, and weren't embarrassed to let those influences show.

I was the one kid in high school who always preferred Anthrax to Metallica. Anthrax had a sense of humor, and I liked that. They were guys who wore "jams" shorts and loved comic books. I could relate to that. Metallica always seemed so serious, and I was always much more into hearing songs about Mr. Judge Dredd. Another major part of Anthrax's appeal to me were the vocals of Joey Belladonna. Instead of being a grunter or gravelly voiced screamer, Belladonna was a rock singer, probably as comfortable singing Journey songs as Black Sabbath ones, yet still convincing while vocalizing on some of the greatest thrash metal ever produced.

The 1987 album "Among the Living" remains one of my favorite rock records to this day. It's a heavy rocking album full of comic book references, horror movie nods, and the metal shout along classic N.F.L. (Nice Fucking Life). It also had a few serious moments, most notably the equal rights anthem "Indians" (Belladonna is a Native-American, and Anthrax has always had that "we love everyone" vibe to them). "Among" also had some great melodies in it, it was accessible without wussing out, I freaking loved Anthrax.

Their later releases were good too, and many of them were even more political (Keep It in the Family again about racism, was especially powerful). While Metallica were singing about dudes with no arms, legs, hearing, sight, etc., Anthrax was writing songs I could relate to. In 1992 the bottom fell out of Anthrax, and despite middling degrees of success afterwards they were never the same to me ever again.

In 1992 Anthrax fired Belladonna and hired John Bush. Bush is a great singer, but it never worked for me in Anthrax. His hiring changed the personality of the band. The songs were no longer about goofing off, comics, and B-movies. Anthrax were now a "serious" band interested in writing songs about more conventional "metal" topics. The first Anthrax album with Bush was a success, going gold in 1993 and debuting
at number seven on the Billboard charts. It was the last success Anthrax would ever really experience.

The band recorded with Bush for the next eleven years and continued to release it grind it out style metal albums. A lot of Anthrax fans prefer that incarnation of the band, but to me it sounds like a different group. The mis-steps with Anthrax were not so much recording with Bush, it's what happened after that in the mid-2000's. I saw them once with Bush, and dude was great, but the core of the set-list was Belladonna-Anthrax with a different singer. That tells you what era the bands strongest material came from.

The band began to turn into a joke when they kicked Bush out of the band to go on a poorly planned reunion tour with Belladonna. (A tour I got to see twice, and I thought was awesome, but publicity for it was about zero.) Barely two years into the reunion with Belladonna he either left the band or was kicked out, and John Bush was brought back in at the last minute to save some gigs. Bush didn't really want to come back, but is kind of a stand up guy. When offered the full time Anthrax gig again Bush turned it down so he continue to do voice over work in Hollywood, which is probably far more profitable (he's done a lot of work for Burger King). The band then settled on a guy named Dan Nelson, whose tenure with the band resulted in an unreleased album and a few live shows before he was kicked out.

You probably know where this is going now right? Bush came back yet again to do some live shows, and then a year later Belladonna rejoined the band. Last summer Anthrax was invited to be a part of the "Big 4" tour in Europe, featuring the biggest 80's "thrash" bands: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax. By virtue of having toured in a station wagon the last ten years Anthrax was the opener. When the "Smaller Three" went on tour last fall (all bands minus Metallica) it was again Anthrax who opened. When I saw that tour I was again the one dude there for Anthrax. Some things are hard to give up.

Today the band released it's first new studio record with Belladonna in twenty years, "Worship Music" (much of which was originally recorded with Nelson). What am I listening to right now? You know the answer to that. Who will be the lead singer of Anthrax next week? Probably Rob Halford, and then Bush for a few days, and then Sheryl Crow for a month or two.

Anyways, I'm geeked to be listening to new Belladonna Anthrax. It's not quite as good as the stuff from twenty-five years ago, but it's big, loud, metal, and probably the best rock/metal album so far this year. Listen to Fight 'Em Till You Can't if you've been missing the old school metal.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Paganism and Sex (Thoughts while re-writing a Horned God Workshop)

Next week I'll be giving a workshop on "The Horned God" at a conference in San Francisco (or "The City" as we refer to it out here). This won't be any ordinary horned god workshop, it's actually being filmed for a documentary movie on sex and religion. Out of a dozen workshops, the film maker is only filming two, and mine is one of them. Would I love to be in a movie? Hell yeah, and to be honest I've tweaked my workshop so that I talk a little bit more about sex than I normally would. (Gotta give 'em material so I don't end up on the cutting room floor ya know.)

Two years ago I presented a horned god workshop called "The British Horned God," it went amazingly well, even though a few of the deities I talked about were not particularly British. What I liked so much about that workshop was that it tended to trace the evolution of the idea of an archetypal Horned God better than anything I had done up to that point. Instead of just talking about horns and phalluses it began in France with the 15,000 year old figure known as "The Sorcerer" and then linked him to the Gaulish Cernunnos. I linked Cernunnos in turn to Herne, the Green Man, and eventually Robin Hood before spitting out a Horned God Archetype based on all three images. Are Cernunnos, Herne, and The Sorcerer related? Not originally, but they are now because people pasted them together on the same page in the modern age, but they don't emerge one from another in the archeological record.

So today I was merging bits and pieces of that British Horned God workshop into some older work, removing all the extraneous "horned gods" I usually mention (Kokopelli, Dionysus, Shiva) and instead placing the focus squarely on Cernunnos, Pan, the idea of linking radically different gods because of the horns on their head, and 19th Century Romantic Poetry. I did all of this while listening to the band T. Rex, a band who recorded songs like "Puckish Pan," "Raw Ramp," and "Jitterbug Love." When you stare at pictures of Pan all day, he of the erect phallus and army of maenads, you can't but help to think of sex a little bit.

Paganism is different from other religions in that it's "sex positive." When I talk about the Horned God I stress that one of his many attributes is "sex," but it's not sex for the purpose of reproduction. The Horned God celebrates sex for the sake of sex, for the pure enjoyment of it all. When it comes to sex the Horned God is a giver, he hands us that gift freely, it's not something to be entered into only after a ceremony and only on certain occasions.

Many gods are at least somewhat sex positive. I'm sure I'll have Christian friends argue with me that Yahweh is sex positive, and they'd be right, but the Bull of Israel's view of "sex positive" is a bit more limited. Sure a follower of Yahweh can enjoy sex, but the primary purpose of sex for one of his followers is reproduction, pleasure is a happy bi-product. For Pan, reproduction is a consequence (positive or negative depending) of sex, the primary purpose of sex is for pleasure.

Sex in the world of Jehovah also serves another purpose beyond reproduction and pleasure, it's a test. You can't have sex just because you are horny, you have to find a partner for sex and then bury your passions long enough to get married so you can then have sex. There is a barrier between you and the sex. The Horned God has a few requirements, but they are easy to follow through on. All he asks is that you do it safely and that you do it well. If you can wrap the weasel up, find a willing partner, and not make an ass of yourself, have at it.

When I read Christian critiques of Pagan Religion one of the most common is that Paganism allows people to do whatever they want, and one of those "whatevers" is often related to sex. Yes, it's true many Pagans have pretty open and liberated sexual lifestyles. I know many married Pagans who are not monogamous. Those Pagans tend to be honest and open about not being monogamous, and you can't "cheat" on a spouse if they wink at you before you slip off with a lover. I know many Christians who are not monogamous, and their lives revolve around nothing but lies. The majority of married couples have trouble staying monogamous, something that might even be related to our genetic programming, it's best to at least address those issues honestly, and to worship gods who are compatible with who we are as people. How do you pray about what troubles you when you when the god you are praying to is celibate?

The idea that Pagan sexual morays are unregulated is a bit of an over simplification. It's true that Pagans don't believe that there's a cosmic score card attached to sex, but there are rules to it. When you have sex with someone within Paganism it requires being truthful with everyone involved, yourself, your sexual partner, and anyone else your impending joining might effect. It also requires common sense, a clear head, and a full of understanding of the evening's and morning's expectations.

One of the more modern interpretations of the Horned God is as the "Ideal Pagan Man." In that context I've seen him playing with children, and looking at his Lady with giant puppy dog eyes that shine with love and devotion. While a god like Pan is certainly not about the joining of the physical (sex) with the emotional (love), it would be wrong to say that today's Horned God feels the same way. The Horned God (and Pan is just one part of the archetype) freely mixes love and sex, and knows how to honestly make one person the center of his world. There's a devotion to a partner there that's a part of Him, and a part of every strong and powerful Pagan couple I know.

One of the many strengths of Paganism when it comes to sex is that Pagans have a very strong ability to compartmentalize it. Sex after a Jim Morrison Ritual is almost always about pleasure, and filling an animal longing. Pagans also realize that sex can be about making babies, while still hopefully fulfilling some animal longing. Sex can also be about expressing true love and showing a partner how much you care about them, but sex does not have to always be related to love, it can just sometimes be sex. Sex is also a sacred act, a way to experience the union of Lady and Lord, Goddess and God, and in such a context it's often at it's most powerful. Sex can also be a mixture of any of those four components. I've had sex with someone I love while feeling the sex as a need, all while channeling Pan, but we weren't trying to have a baby.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Autumn Wind means Football.

In the fall my life revolves around football, college football, professional football, and everything but the Canadian Football League*. My Saturdays and Sundays are pretty much consumed by it, and I'll skip most social events and obligations to watch it. My wedding was planned around football, occurring on a Saturday evening with no University of Tennessee football game on, and a start time after the Michigan State game. Some of my happiest days have been spent watching football.

For the record I'm a Pittsburgh Steeler fan and have been since the age of four. My mood in the fall is determined by their win/loss record. Game days are spent wrapped from head to toe in black and gold, terrible towel in my back pocket, consumed by an insane desire to see them win. I have berated people for calling me on the phone during "Game Days," totally baffled why anyone would be doing anything but watching football.** (The only calls I like to take during Steeler football are calls from other NFL die-hards, and texts are preferred these days.)

When I die I want to be buried in my Steeler jersey, and I want someone to play "Here We Go Steelers" at the service. I identify with football in a way I don't identify with anything else in my life. Yes, I love a lot of rock bands, and I love them so much that just listening to a few of them can bring me to tears, however wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt doesn't really mean shit these days. It's just a shirt. Put on some Steeler gear though and people will roll their eyes at you, mutter at you, or give you a shout-out about the Black and Gold. No one's ever yelled "Jimmy Page is the man" at me for wearing a Swan Song t-shirt. I have heard "Lamar Woodley
is a monster!" while wearing number 56.

Back in Michigan, Ari and I used to go grocery shopping on the occasional Sunday Morning (NFL games start at 1:00 pm back there). Walking around the grocery store there were all sorts of people wearing copious amounts of NFL Gear. Since we were in Michigan Detroit Lions gear was the most common, but not by much, there were lots of Steeler fans running around. What made it so interesting was that the fans of each team were like a gang or a cult. It's ridiculous for grown men to be wearing the football jerseys of other people they will never meet and have it mean something to them, but it does. Putting on your team's colors is like putting on a crucifix or a pentacle, you do it because it means something to you, something beyond just fandom.

Football just seems bigger than anything else in the United States. 100 million people watch the Super Bowl every year, that's one third of the entire country. A top rated television show these days might snag 20 million viewers. The combined viewership for Sunday-Monday NFL Football tops out at over 60 million people, and Neilsen suggests that by the midway point in any given NFL season 150 million unique viewers have watched at least part of a football game. That's about equal to church attendance in a given year as a percentage of the population. Which leads me to the question, is football a religion, a harmless past-time, or an obsession?

The NFL has done something that no other major sports league has been able to do: it's created its own mythology. Sure, diehard fans would have romanticized the "Ice Bowl" or the "Immaculate Reception" but the NFL accomplished that task in a way that made those games and plays "moments." The NFL was able to take something like the "frozen tundra of Lambeau Field" and turn it into a piece of Americana, an essential part of the American Experience. The Super Bowl is more than a game, it's a holiday, Thanksgiving would be incomplete without a few football games, the NFL has managed to become a part of our society's fabric in a way that Major League Baseball can only dream about.

A lot of the power the NFL has is the direct result of a little side project known as NFL Films. In the 1970's before cable TV the only way to see NFL game highlights of teams outside of your market was to wait for the football shows produced by NFL Films to show up midweek (by the 1980's HBO's "Inside the NFL" filled this void, also produced by NFL Films). The shows from NFL Films featured music that sounded like it was ripped from a John Williams soundtrack (it was actually composed by a man named Sam Spence), and contained what became known as the "Voice of God" John Facenda doing the commentary.

Facenda had one of those legendary voices, and though he's been dead for several decades, his voice still dominates NFL highlight packages. Facenda's rich, authoritative baritone made football sound more important than it probably was, or is, it made the game sound like a battle of life and death between the forces of evil (the Oakland Raiders) and light (the Pittsburgh Steelers). Don't worry, the Raiders reveled in their bad boy image, and that image resulted in the best two minutes NFL Films ever produced, the epic "The Autumn Wind is a Pirate" song and poem. I hate the Raiders, and yet somehow the music combined with Facenda's voice and the words "The autumn wind is a Raider . . . ." sends chills down my spine.

Growing up the NFL always seemed important in ways that other sports did not. Monday Night Football was an event, a work night party held weekly in my living room. With only 16 regular season games per team NFL contests have an importance that games from other sports do not have. There is no room for error if you want to make the playoffs, no week you can take off, and every game has consequences.

I had to download this song because it's in an NFL commercial, that's the power of "The Shield."

Football has another advantage over every other sport, it's the only sport when you don't see the players faces. This gives it a power that other sports don't have. It takes away the players and gives all the power to the logo. In basketball it's impossible to separate the team from the players, you didn't root for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990's, you rooted for Michael Jordan. No NFL fan roots for a certain player, they might like a certain player, but loyalty to the team always comes first. Since there are 46 players per NFL Roster, and half of those come and go on a yearly basis, the only allegiance a fan can have is to the colors, the franchise.

I originally titled this piece "Football as Religion," but football is not a religion. I keep an altar to the NFL at my house, and my collection of "Terrible Towels" are holy objects, but football is not a religion in the sense that you pray to ghosts of Bill Walsh and George Halas, football is an identity, and for its fans it's a tribal culture. We are do disconnected today, we don't participate in bowling leagues, don't join the Freemasons, etc., we lack connection to groups and bigger things. Football is a connection to that "bigger thing." I wear black and yellow on Sundays because I want to relate to something mythic, epic, timeless, and powerful. Sure, I could just wear Pan shirts everyday, but he doesn't play a weekly game on TV. Football fanaticism is a socially acceptable passion and identity, socially acceptable in ways that religion and politics are not.

When you see someone walking around town with a big "Jesus Loves You" shirt on you look at them sideways. They are sharing their faith and identity, but it's generally not something everyone else wants to be bothered with. I don't want to know you are a Rick Perry supporter and I'm going to judge you for it when you put his bumper sticker on your car, but you can wear a Cowboys hat and while the Cowboys suck, I don't immediately hate you for it. Football lets you express something without provoking the immediate negative that is "Tea Party Supporter."

Football also creates a rush of energy that is often absent from our mundane world. Walk into an NFL Stadium and tell me you don't feel energy. Sure it's crazy and misdirected, but it's there. It's an adrenalin rush that most of us can't recreate in our daily lives. You can burn all the candles and chant as much as you want, I'm sure there's more energy in my living room on a Sunday afternoon game day than half of your circles any day of the week.

Bring on the NFL Season, bring on the myths, and bring on that black and gold.

*Though I will watch a CFL game in August or July when there's nothing else on, the league is not a priority like the NFL and NCAA are.

**Pagans as a whole do not watch a lot of sports. There are some, but we are definitely in the minority. I tend to have trouble wrapping my mind around this fact. Other Pagans seem to have trouble with my football fanaticism, and often will tell me to "DVR the game" when it conflicts with something. You don't DVR sports!