Saturday, June 28, 2014

Behold: The Future of School Prayer in Post-Potter America?

[Lately my life hasn't left me much time for blogging. So, sometimes now when I go a whole week or more and I haven't had a chance to write anything at all, I just look through some of my more popular old posts and change the date, add a little prologue, and maybe edit it/add to it slightly. This post was originally prompted (well over three years ago) by a graphic that suddenly appeared in several of my Pagan friends' facebook feeds. I was so struck by the subversive brilliance of it, that I tried to find out who was behind it. I only ever got as far as finding the original photographer and model, both of whom are highly talented in their own rights. But to this day I have never discovered who the genius was that added the captioning to the image. If anyone happens to know, please leave a comment! And now without further ado, here is a little something I posted back on November 20, 2010.] 
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Some pictures really are worth a thousand words, but there are times when just the right caption can add something essential to the end result.

This "Motivational Poster" style commentary on school prayer has been making the rounds on teh interwebs. It started as part of a "Student Witch" series by photographer Marcus J. Ranum. You can see the whole series at Ranum's DeviantArt gallery here.

(Ranum's wikipedia entry tells us that he is a computer security expert of some note and that "his hobbies include photography and firearms.")

I would like to find out whose idea it was to add the eleven words to Ranum's already quite magnificent photo, thus taking it to the next level of brilliance!

The book she is holding is Aleister Crowley's "Magic in Theory and Practice", which you can make out if you look at the full size image of the original. The book on the ground is something by Anton LeVay.

Ranum, who is an atheist and a supporter of Richard Dawkin's "Out Campaign", has this to say about inclusion of the LeVay book as a prop in the original photograph:
Someone mentioned (rightly and courteously) that I might have given offense by mixing the word "witch" with LaVey's goofy satanic bible. It's just a prop. I was tempted to fix the title but then I realized that would be inconsistent. As an equal opportunity disrespector of all religion, it would be unfair of me to show wicca more respect than I show any of the other goofy superstitions of the world. So, with all due respect, if this image bothers you - "get over it."
As long as I'm trying to give credit where credit is due, I'm pretty sure the model is Laura Unbound. She also has her own DeviantArt page here (actually that's a direct link to the photo of her to the right by Scott Church, which is part of Laura's own online portfolio).

[Since first posting this I have received direct confirmation from Laura Unbound that it is her. She also left a comment below.]

Here's my other personal favorite from Ranum's "Student Witch" series (Student Witch - 5), as well as some other works featuring the lovely Laura (by photographer Rodney Mickle), just for the hell of it, and also possibly just to jack up my hit count in one of the most obvious and time tested ways:

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

What is wrong with Islam? Five views.

[This was originally posted on September 1, 2010. It seems, to me, to be as relevant now as it was then.]

1. Religion = Bad
All religions are both irrational and intolerant, and they all have a natural tendency toward totalitarianism. All religions are, therefore, ultimately incompatible with humanist values, with liberal democracy, and with the ideals of individual liberty and human equality. At most, Islam is simply a worst case scenario, but the negative characteristics of Islam are shared with all religions, if to a lesser extent.
Proponents: Atheists, Agnostics, Secular Humanists [This position was formerly that of most of the Left, but nowadays leftists are among the most loyal apologists for Islam.]

2. "Islam is retarded."
Islam is uniquely irrational and intolerant, and its tendency toward totalitarianism sets it apart from other religions. Christianity, on the other hand, is especially compatible with, and in fact helped to give rise to, humanism, democracy and the ideals of equality and liberty.
Proponents: Geert Wilders, Sarah Palin, etc.

3. The Three Impostors theory
All monotheistic religions have their origins in totalitarian designs. In particular, Moses, Jesus & Mohammad were "grand masters of the art of trickery" whose sole motivation was the desire "to oblige the people to submit to them." The teachings of these "Three Impostors" have been cynically perpetuated down through the ages by "the ambitious" who used religion to accomplish "the propagation and perpetuity of their laws, as well as the culture of such ceremonies and fanaticism as they deemed proper to establish." [Quotes taken from infidels.org.]
Proponents: Variously ascribed to Friederich II, Averroes, Michael Servetus, Machiavelli, Rabelais, Erasmus, Milton, Giordano Bruno, Boccaccio, Gassendi, Spinoza, etc. The overall argument is similar to those found in the Enlightenment critiques of Christianity penned by Voltaire, Hume, Paine and Gibbon, and also to the writings of contemporary Egyptologist and historian of religion Jan Assmann.

4. The Evil Twins theory
As tempting as it is to classify the monotheisms together as above, it seems, at least to me, to be an outrage against common decency to lump the Jews together in this way with those who have expended so much energy to exterminate them. And I think there is also a need to give far greater weight to the practice of intolerance than to merely theorizing about it. We should look first to the historical record, according to which there can be no doubt that Christianity and Islam form their own aberrant subset of violently intolerant religions - religions that leave a bloody trail of smoking destruction everywhere they go. Having established this category on the basis of objective facts, we can then look to the "teachings", such as they are, of these Evil Twins, to better understand their behavior.
Proponents: Yours Truly

5. What is wrong with Islam? Nothing. And you are a vile bigot for even asking.
Islam is the Religion of Peace. It is not a mosque and it is not at Ground Zero. Arbeit macht frei. We will be greeted as liberators. The public was never in danger. It's morning again in America. We are the ones we have been waiting for. The smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud. Universal home ownership. With the Big Mind Process, a genuine kensho can occur in about an hour—seriously. Remember the Maine. We believe the products we make are not injurious to health. We have always been at war with Eastasia. Land Bread Peace.
Proponents: Karen Armstrong, Barack Obama, etc.


See also:
The Essence of Religion: Four Theories
Are there two kinds of religion?
Good Fences Make Good Religions?
Religions of the Library

[The "NEVER take your freedoms for granted" graphic was snagged from craigread.com, a right-wing website that promotes position #2 above.]

Saturday, June 14, 2014

"Hail Satan" meets "Nailed It"

Gerald Gardner, Magna Carta, and the Right to Bear Arms

[This was first posted on August 10, 2012. I am reposting it now in honor of Gerald's 130th birthday.]

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"... my Luger and Donna's revolver ..."


In August of 1940 the Battle of Britain was just getting under way, and it very much remained to be seen who would prevail. If the Luftwaffe managed to establish control of the skies over Britain, then the Wehrmacht would soon be marching on British soil.

It was under these circumstances that one Gerald Gardner wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph under the title "Resisting the Invader" and subtitled, "Delaying Actions by Civilians". (See Philip Heselton's wonderful book Witchfather: A Life of Gerald Gardner, Volume I, for the full text of the letter as well as more background information, sources, etc.)

The main thrust of Gardner's letter was that in the event of a successful invasion of Britain by the Nazis, any civilians who found themselves behind enemy lines should engage in armed resistance against the foreign occupiers. In order to prepare for such an eventuality Gardner specifically proposed that "Everyone willing should be given arms when they are available and taught how to use them."

Gerald Gardner was as good as his word. As a volunteer ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden, he had already begun distributing the few weapons he himself possessed (including pikes and coshes) to his fellow wardens. In addition, Gardner took an inventory of the privately held weapons among his neighbors, which he found lamentably inadequate for the task at hand: "We expected Hitler on the seashore any day. We had no weapons worth the name. In my three-mile beach sector there were six shotguns, my Luger and Donna's revolver, and a few other pistols, with about six rounds apiece for them. Then there were my pikes and swords."

When a small unit of regular army soldiers was dispatched to Gardner's area, he further complained about their lack of serious weaponry: "barring rifles and not much ammunition, they had nothing. No artillery, no automatic weapons. I tried to get an old Malay cannon going, with some blasting powder for explosives, but nothing came of this." Despite the lack of success with the Malay cannon, Gardner did manage to get his hands on some Sten guns for the local Home Guard, and he also showed his neighbors how to make Molotov cocktails.

Gardner, a proud Conservative, worked closely with the local Commander of the Home Guard, Major Fish, a Canadian socialist. Despite their significant political differences both men shared a common anti-authoritarian streak, and a fierce determination to "fight them on the beaches" when and if it came to that. Fish enrolled Gardner as an Armourer for his battalion despite the fact that ARP wardens were officially forbidden from taking up arms even in the event of an out and out invasion. But Fish and Gardner agreed that this prohibition was nonsensical, and, besides, Gardner "could be a warden during air raids and Home Guard during the All Clears".

One might be tempted to assume that Gardner's Churchillian sounding letter was nothing special, just an obvious and unproblematic statement of ordinary patriotic sentiments in the face of an imminent threat to British national sovereignty. But the role of civilians in warfare is a matter of perennial controversy. Wars should be fought by armies on the battlefield, and civilians should having nothing to do with it, or so one way of looking at things would have it. After all, in theory at least, the "rules of warfare" dictate that civilians should not be the targets of military attacks. But when civilians arm themselves and join the fray, as Gardner was proposing, what makes them any different from any other armed combatant? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in the act of taking up arms, civilians thereby make themselves (and all nearby civilians) "fair game."

To Gardner's mind, however, there was nothing theoretical about any of this: "If each village and town had defended itself, France would never have fallen as she did, and Germany might well have been on the way to defeat now," he wrote in his letter. England must not repeat the mistake of the French: "Why should people who wish to defend themselves be prevented just to make it easy for Germany? By Magna Carta every free-born Englishman is entitled to have arms to defend himself and his household. Let us now claim our right."

The official Nazi press took notice of Gardner's "Magna Carta letter", as it became known, and responded by publicly lecturing Gardner about "advances" in "human ethics": "His suggestion is condemned as medieval and as an infringement of international law."

The Nazi position was not quite as ridiculous as one might think. All too recently Europe had witnessed first hand the mind-bending horrors of modern, mechanized warfare. The killing power of machine guns and poison gas, combined with other technological advances such as rail and air transportation and electronic communications, had all combined in the Great War to result in a truly staggering loss of life (2% of the British population, 4% of France, nearly 4% of Germany ....).

And when all out war raised its ugly head again in Europe in the 1939, it came in the form of Blitzkrieg, which made the weapons that had slaughtered so many millions in WWI look crude and primitive by comparison. What could civilians with pistols and swords and clubs hope to accomplish against Stuka dive-bombers and Panzer tank divisions? To many it just seemed ludicrous to think that ill-equipped and barely trained civilians could play any meaningful role in modern warfare, other than to provide a cruel pretext for savage collective retaliation against civilian populations.

Additionally there is the embarrassing (especially for Conservatives like Gardner and Churchill) fact that it was just a tad inconsistent for the British Empire to uncritically embrace the general principle that ordinary people have a right to take up arms against a foreign occupying force. For, you see, once that is conceded then one is already well on one's way down the slippery slope toward such things as "self-determination" and "national liberation". And if the point was lost on anyone in 1940, this ineluctable logic bomb exploded with full force in Africa and Asia less than a decade later, once the European "Great Powers" had settled their differences.

But desperate times have a way of focusing the mind. With Nazi aircraft directly overhead and only the English Channel separating them from Nazi jackboots on the ground, Britons knew that their choices were down to two: submit or fight. And they knew that to fight meant to fight by any and all means necessary, and this demanded that "Everyone willing should be given arms when they are available and taught how to use them."

"While the Anglo-Saxons were yet Pagans."

It should be emphasized just how fitting it was for one of the most important figures in the modern Pagan revival to invoke the Magna Carta. It is even more fitting to turn to a letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright in order to illustrate this point. (source)

In 1776, the year in which Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence at the behest of the Continental Congress, John Cartwright produced a work that was arguably even more radical. The title of Cartwright's book was Take Your Choice, and in it he argued for the radical reform of Parliament in order to make England truly democratic. Specifically, Cartwright argued for the principle that we now call "one man one vote" (a phrase that Cartwright used and may have coined), that is, universal male suffrage and strictly proportional representation.

Nearly fifty years later, in 1823, Cartwright's reforms had not been enacted in England. In the U.S., on the other hand, property restrictions on voting had been removed for white males, but other serious issues remained (as they do today, such as non-proportional representation in the Senate, the electoral college, and so forth). In that year Cartwright published another highly significant book on The English Constitution. In that book, Cartwright set himself the task of showing that the basic democratic principles that he had devoted his life to were based in Anglo-Saxon Common Law. This meant that the democratic reforms that appeared so radical to some were, in fact, simply a long-overdue reestablishment of ancient traditions.

As one might expect, Cartwright was generally well disposed toward the American Revolution and its leaders. The copy of his The English Constitution tha one finds online at archive.org (link) is signed and personally dedicated to John Adams. Cartwight also personally sent a copy of his book to Thomas Jefferson, who wrote to thank Cartwright, and to make a few specific observations.

One thing that Jefferson found especially worthwhile about Cartwright's book was the author's conclusion that the essential rights and liberties cherished by both the English and their American cousins were traceable back to the first arrival of the Anglo-Saxons on British soil. Jefferson was pleased not only because this afforded the founding principles of the United States such a long and estimable pedigree, but more specifically because it decisively undercut any claim by Christianity to a central place in the English or American political and legal systems, and, thereby, resoundingly validated that principle which Jefferson held especially dear and with which his name is so closely associated: the separation of church and state.

Here are Jefferson's own words to Cartwright:

"I was glad to find in your book a formal contradiction, at length, of the judiciary usurpation of legislative powers; for such the judges have usurped in their repeated decisions, that Christianity is a part of the common law. The proof of the contrary, which you have adduced, is incontrovertible; to wit, that the common law existed while the Anglo-Saxons were yet Pagans, at a time when they had never yet heard the name of Christ pronounced, or knew that such a character had ever existed."

The opinion that Jefferson expressed in his 1824 letter to John Cartwright, that the rights and liberties cherished by the English and the Americans were rooted in pre-Christian traditions, was one that Jefferson had long held. This is shown by another letter, written just one month after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

This letter concerns another project, in addition to the Declaration, on which Jefferson, Adams and Franklin were also working at the same time: a committee (the first of three, as it turned out) charged with designing an official "Great Seal of the confederated States." In a letter to his wife Abigail, John Adams described Jefferson's proposal that that Seal should portray "Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon Chiefs, from whom We claim the Honour of being descended and whose Political Principles and Form of Government We have assumed." (full text of letter, dated August 14, 1776, here.)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Roman Catholicism: The Birth of European Theocracy (A Very Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Seven)

A Western "Augustus" versus the "Empire of the Greeks"

[NB: I was making some minor edits to this old post from over four years ago, and somehow I managed to change the date on it so that it now shows up as a "new" post! I will let it sit here in the present for a while, for all to admire, or not, as the Dear Reader sees fit. And then when it seems appropriate, I will send it back to the past. The original post date was May 25, 2010.]

[Original Preamble: This post is the latest in a series on the history of monotheism. Links to other installments in this series can be found at the bottom of the post. See especially the two previous posts on Charlemagne linked to there. Those two posts are more thoroughly annotated than this one, which revisits much of the same material, but with a view to more explicitly connect the events of the 8th and 9th centuries to the subsequent development of Medieval Christendom. Look for future posts on a reassessment of the Viking raids as a defensive response to Frankish Jihadism, drawing heavily on Robert Ferguson's book The Vikings: A History, as well as at least one post on connections between Northern Heathenism and "non-European" spiritual influences, especially Siberian/Arctic Shamanism.]

Prior to Charlemagne, whoever sat on the throne in the city founded by and named for Constantine (modern day Istanbul) was the only emperor recognized by the Orthodox Christians of the world, including those living in the far-flung barbarian rump of Christendom, amidst the crumbling remnants of what had once been the western Roman Empire.

In fact:
Throughout the early Middle Ages the popes were the subjects of the East Roman emperors. Up to A.D. 800, every papal document sent to western bishops and to western rulers was dated by the regnal year of the emperor in Constaninople, the pope's true lord and master.
[Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom, pp. 179-180]
Precisely what transpired in Saint Peter's Basilica, in the city of Rome, on Christmas Day, 800 AD, is very literally the stuff of legends. One thing is clear: this was the beginning of the end of the days when the Emperor in Constantinople was the "true lord and master" of the Pope in Rome.

What we do know is that both Pope Leo III and Charles, King of the Franks, were present together on that historical day in the Basilica. We also know that at some point the Pope placed a crown on the King's head and declared him Augustus: a title that had been used by all Roman Emperors after the Senate granted it to Octavian (aka Caesar Augustus) on January 16, 27 BC, until it was abandoned by Heraclius, who ruled from 610-641 AD. Heraclius and those who followed him preferred the Hellenic title Basileus, which had been used by Alexander the Great and his successors in Egypt, Asia and Macedon.

(Unresolved questions about the coronation of Charles by Leo include: whether this was planned ahead of time, whether Charles sought this or welcomed it when it came, why Leo did whatever it was he did, why Charles went along with it to whatever extent he did, and so forth.)

Even though the emperor of the Romans (who reigned from Constantinople, as Roman emperors had done since 324 AD) no longer (but only since 610) used the Latin title Augustus, nevertheless, bestowing that title on someone not seated on the throne in Constantinople was considered at the very least an affront by both the Greek speaking Church of the East and the Greek speaking Roman/Byzantine state.

It is important to remember that the empire commonly referred to today as "Byzantine" never called itself that, nor did anyone ever call it that until well after the Empire itself was finally snuffed out by the Ottomans. At the time of Charlemagne it was, and had always been, the Roman empire -- and in the Middle Ages it's people still called themselves Romans, although they now did so in Greek. If that seems a little odd to us, perhaps it is slightly less odd when we consider that according to the legends about the origins of the Roman people, the great hero Aeneas and his followers were refugees from the cataclysmic destruction of Troy at the hands of the Greeks, and when they finally arrived on the banks of the Tiber they abandoned whatever their native language had been in favor of Latin, and intermarried with the locals.

The coronation a new Augustus in the city of Rome openly posed a challenge to the "Roman-ness" of the "Empire of the Greeks" (Imperium Graecorum, as it was already being called by Latin speaking, and Greek-less westerners). As of December 25, 800 AD, there were now two Christian emperors, and who could possibly avoid wondering whether or not the world was big enough for two Christian Empires?

Christianity in the modern world is overwhelmingly dominated by the distinctly Western Christianity that was (only) now taking shape. And this new kind of Christianity was not only Western, it was a Christianity that was for the first time genuinely European. In modern terms, this new Western Christianity can be defined as Roman Catholicism and its offshoots (the various "Protestant" sectoids).

It must be emphasized that there was nothing European about early Christianity at all, even well past late antiquity and into the Dark Ages proper. The bulk of the population of the late Roman Empire lay in Asia and Africa, and that is also where the economic and cultural center of gravity of the Roman world was. Alexandria was arguably the cultural capital of the whole world up through the 4th and into the 5th century AD. As the port through which the great wealth of Egypt (grain in particular) passed out into the world at large (and through which the wealth of the world at large passed back into Egypt) it was also a world-class economic powerhouse. And it was also one of the most important centers of the Christian religion.

The Greek speaking East was both more populous in general, and more heavily (and more orthodoxly) Christian than the Latin speaking West. Through the 4th and into 5th century the city of Rome (still the city with the largest human population on earth) continued to be a bastion of Pagan resistance to Christianization. When Rome was sacked by the Christian Visigoths in 410, Pagan refugees flooded into North Africa. It was in part to counter the influence of these Pagan diehards, now emboldened by the Christian God's failure to protect Rome (even against other Christians!), that Augustine embarked on his great exercise in religious propaganda, his City of God: Against the Pagans.

The western and northern parts of the Empire, and the semi-barbarian frontier areas that were heavily Romanized, were not only less Christian, but the Christians there were less Orthodox. In particular, the Arian sect that proved one of the most resilient of the heresies, thrived especially among the various Germanic peoples. These Arian Goths came to control large parts of the West for significant periods of time, including all of Italy and Spain and much of Gaul (modern France). In fact the entire western half of the empire was ruled by Germanic peoples by the 6th century, and of these only the Franks were reliably Orthodox.

But by the 8th century, Christianity, and Orthodox Christianity in particular, appeared to be rallying in the West. And with Muslim invaders now advancing through Spain and with the  Heathen Continental Saxon Pagans menacing on the northern frontiers, it was now or never. This reinvigorated Western Christianity was ready to take on the Saxons and the Mohammedans, but at the same time it was no longer willing to take it's orders from the East. It would take another 254 years to become official, but in essence a new, distinctly European (that is, "white") form of Christianity was inaugurated when Pope Leo bestowed upon Charles the title Augustus.

Western Christians, that is, Catholics and Protestants, today make up close to 80% of the world's approximately 2 billion Christians (with Catholics alone comprising over half the world's Christians). Most of the remaining 20% are Eastern Orthodox.

The predominance of Western Christianity is even more striking in that essentially all of the growth of the Christian religion, as a percentage of the human population, over the last 1000 years has been due to the spread of Catholicism (and, later, Protestantism). That growth, in turn, has been as a direct result of the violent consolidation and expansion of Western Christendom in five distinct phases:

1. Military expansion of Catholicism, combined with forced conversions, throughout all of western and northern Europe from the 8th century through the 15th century (final defeat of the Lithuanian Pagans).

2. Continuous and large-scale persecution of all religious deviants (from relatively minor "heresy" to full scale apostasy and/or Crypto-Paganism) all the way up to the 18th century.

3. Military expansion of Catholicism and Protestantism, combined with forced conversion, throughout the Western Hemisphere from the 15th century through the end of the "Indian Wars" in the early 20th century. The Spanish conquest and forced conversion of the Philipines also occured during this same phase. (This accounts for about 300 million Christians who are the descendants of those who were simultaneously conquered and converted in the Americas and the Philipines.)

4. Enslavement and forced conversion of Africans "imported" to the Western Hemisphere from the 16th century through the 19th century. (This accounts for about 180 million Christians today who are the descendants of those who were enslaved.)

5. The "Scramble for Africa" by the European "Great Powers" from mid 19th century through the mid 20th century (this accounts for about 450 million Christians who are the descendants of those who were simultaneously colonized and converted.)

The early successes of the first phase listed above coincided with reigns of Charlemagne and his father, Pepin. The father accomplished the unification of the Franks under a single ruler, the son consolidated this unification (which had been accomplished before, but never sustained), but then built on this in two ways: (1) he launched a series of expansionist wars against non-Christians (and also against the Lombards who were supposedly Christian, but who were at the very least unreliable in their loyalty to the Pope, and may very well have harbored Pagans in their midsts); and (2) he forged a political-religious-military alliance between the King of the Franks and the Bishop of Rome which simultaneously created a new Christian Empire and a new form of Christianity.

Religio Christiana versus the Northmen

The iron grip of Christian theocracy on Europe was still far from complete when Charlemagne died in 814. Even the Pagn Saxons had still not been vanquished or even genuinely converted, as the Stellinga uprising of 841 demonstrated. But beyond the Saxons lay a vast expanse of Pagandom. Here is brief description of "The Northmen" from the final Chapter of Peter Brown's The Rise of Western Christendom:
In the 820s and 830s Dorestad was the greatest port in Western Europe. During the reign of Charlemagne's successor, Louis the Pious (1814-840), four and half million silver coins were struck at its mint. They showed a cross placed in the middle of the facade of a classical temple, and bore the inscription Religio Christiana. And ostentatiously Christian empire lay at the souther end of the trade routes which led across the North Sea. North of Dorestad and Frisia stretched non-Christian lands, characterized by fragile chiefdoms. In Denmark, along the fjords of Norway, and in the lowlands of souther Sweden, small kings rose and fell according to their ability to gain access to wealth, though plunder on the waters of North Atlantic and the Baltic. But they were also traders. In this period, Hedeby in Denmark and Birka (Bjorko) in southern Sweden became the Dorestads of the North. They were emporia, ringed by fortified ditches. It was there that the merchants of the Christian south purchased the products of the wild lands of the north -- all manner of sumptuous furs from teh Batlic and precious walrus-tusk ivory from the Arctic seas. The Franks referred to the varied inhabitants of Scandinavia as "Northmen." (What is now called Normandy, on the coast of France, was the "land of the Northmen": it was the only permanent Scandinavian settlement in Continental Europe.

The Northmen were pagans. They had remained fiercely loyal to their gods. Only gods could impart to their worshippers the suprahuman vigot and good luck which gave to individuals and to groups a competitive edge over their many rivals. Thus, in around the year 800, two religious systems faced each other at either end of the North Sea. In true Carolingian style, the "Christian Religion" coinage of Dorestad conveyed a message of imperial solidity, protected by the power of Christ. Such confidence was met, in Scandinavia, by a very different set of beliefs . . . . [T]housands of golden amulets have been discovered in Denmark and southern Sweden. They were dedicated to shrins or worn on the persons of leaders so as to increase their numinous good fortune in war. In the fifth and sixth centuries, late Roman gold coins had reached as far as Denmark, where they were promptly transformed into images of victory-bringing gods.

In the ninth century, the Frankish kingdom was far closer to Scandinavia than Rome had ever been. Francia and the lands of the Northmen were close neighbors. Only a few hundred miles of the North Sea lay between them. Frankish goods poured into Denmark and southern Sweden. Not surprisingly, these goods included high-quality Frankish swords. Even the swords spoke of the power of a distant God. the hilt of a Frankish sword, found in Sweden, bears a verse from the Psalms: "Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war and my fingers to fight." [Psalm 144:1]

For Franks and Northmen alike, war was a matter of truly religious seriousness. Sacred words -- Latin Psalms or, in Scandinavia, arcane runes -- showed that the gods were close to hand, to enhance the efficacy of a warriors weapons. Christ was the Frankish god. It was possible that he might find acceptance in Scandinavia, provided that he lived up to the expectations of a society of brittle warriors and enterprising pirates and traders.

Scandinavia itself consisted of a band of coastal settlements, caught between a North Sea whose southern end was ringed by Christian kingdoms and a vast hinterland which stretched as far as the Arctic Circle. But Scandinavia did not only look south. To the east, along the Baltic, the "Northmen" were in contact with a world which reached, through modern Finland, as far as the Siberian forest zone. This was a world of hunters and pastoralists, of Lapps and Finns. Their shamanistic rites, performed in animal costumes, implied an open frontier between the human and animal and between the spirit and human world. Shamanistic practices were partly adopted by the Northmen. Performed in southern Sweden, they struck observers from the distant Christian south. In around 850 an abbot in northern Francia wrote to a missionary in Birka to ask about the manner in which the Northmen transformed themselves through wearing animal masks . . . . Was it really true, he asked the missionary, that a race of dog-headed men lived at the far edge of the earth.

As this letter shows, contact with Scandinavia had intensified by 850. It had been fed by Frankish imperial policy and by trading relations between the Northmen and Dorestad. But with this contact Continental Christians found themselves confronted by a far wider rold than they had expected. With the pagan Northmen, it seemed as if they had truly reached the edge of the world, where humans merged with the beasts.
[pp. 463-465]
Next up in this series: Viking Raids Reconsidered: The Christian Jihad and the Heathen Backlash (A Very Brief History of Pagan Monotheism, Part Eight).

See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Charlemagne, Part Deux: "A substantialy new Church was allied with a new political system." (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Six)
Charlemagne (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Five)
Paganism is not a European Religion, Part Deux
Paganism is not a European Religion
Muhammad (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Four)
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)

Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)

Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism
Hic Sunt Dracones

Monday, June 9, 2014

Johannes Kepler's mother was suspected of Witchcraft because she was a healer

Katharina Kepler, mother of the the famous astronomer/astrologer, was an ill-tempered woman who was widely, and quite possibly deservedly disliked by those who knew her. So when one discovers that in 1615 she was denounced by her neighbors as a Witch, and that they specifically accused her of trying to poison them, and that these accusations were deemed serious enough to warrant formal charges of Witchcraft and a subsequent trial that would drag on for years, one might be tempted to conclude that this is a straightforward example of what certain modern scholars would like us to believe is the typical scenario for Witchcraft accusations during the Burning Times. Read on to see how this case might indeed by typical, but not in the sense that these scholar intend.

You see, certain scholars have, over the last three decades or so, attempted to rewrite history by systematically promulgating a completely false image of the victims of the Witch persecution that gripped Europe during the 15th - 18th centuries. According to this scholarly clique, the victims of the Witch-hunts were targeted only because they were genuinely believed to be malevolent practitioners of harmful magic. Even more specifically, those who were put on trial as Witches were most definitely not, according to this revisionist theory, practitioners of divination, healing and other forms of beneficial magic.

In the specific case of Katharina Kepler we are able to clearly see just how wrong-headed this conflation of Witchcraft with malefic magic really is. For the historical record tells us plainly that Katharina Kepler was a practitioner of magical healing. She was indeed, as her son Johannes himself freely admitted, a sharp-tongued, stubborn, and all around difficult person. But the fact is that far from shunning her, her neighbors sought her out for her cures, which involved herbal potions and magical incantations.

Viewed in light of Katharina Kepler's indisputable reputation as a magical healer, the charges against her constitute, at worst, an accusation of magical malpractice: either her cures did not work, or, worse yet, actually made the patients who took them worse off than they were before.  To be sure, whether Katharina Kepler's potions and incantations did anything at all or not, and if so, whether that was for the better or not, is impossible for us to ascertain now, over four centuries later. Systematically proving or disproving the efficacy of any purported treatment for any illness is a non-trivial process requiring double-blind studies, statistical analysis, and so forth.

However, the "magical malpractice" scenario is only one possible explanation for how a healer such as Kepler could find herself accused of Witchcraft. Another, and arguably more parsimonious, explanation is simply that Katharina Kepler was suspected of being a Witch precisely because of her reputation as a magical healer. Either way, though, there is no doubt that here we have yet another case of a magical healer who fell prey to the Witch-hunters, as was the case with Geillis Duncan and Agnes Sampson in Scotland in 1590-1 (as discussed in the previous post).

Fortunately, in this particular case the story has a happy ending. Katharina Kepler was eventually cleared of all charges. Her exoneration was due in large part to the energetic intervention of her son, the famous scientist and Pythagorean philosopher. But Katharina herself also deserves a significant amount of the credit. Thanks to her indomitable spirit, the Witch-hunters were never able to induce her to "confess" during years of interrogation (which did not include physical torture, but did include threats of torture up to and including being "shown the instruments").


Further reading on the case of Katharina Kepler:
  • Kepler's Witch, James A. Connor, Harper Collins, 2005
  • Kepler, Max Caspar, 1948
  • Witch Hunts in Europe and America: An Encyclopedia, By William E. Burns, 2003 (link)
  • Der Hexenprozeß gegen Katharina Kepler, Berthold Sutter, 1979
  • Historical Trials, A Selection, Sir John MacDonnel, 1931 (link)
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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Witchcraft and Malefic Magic: Can You Handle the Truth?

"White Magic is poetry. 
Black Magic is anything that actually works."
Victor Anderson

Is the notion of "good Witches" a modern romantic fantasy based only on the wishful thinking of feminists and Wiccans? Is it true that healers and other practitioners of beneficial magic were never the intended targets of Witch-hunters, and that, at most, they were very rarely, and only mistakenly, caught up in Witchcraft trials?

The simple fact is that Christians consider Witchcraft to be maleficent for primarily religious reasons, not because it is believed that Witches always and only do harm through their magic. And, as will be shown below, a reputation as a magical healer (or proficiency in any other kind of clearly beneficial magic) was in and of itself sufficient grounds for someone to be accused of being a Witch.

According to The New World of English Words, or, a General Dictionary, by Edward Phillips, first published in 1658, the word "Witchcraft" refers to "the black Art, whereby with the Assistance of the Devil, or evil Spirits, some Wonders may be wrought, which exceed the common Apprehensions of Men."

This definition makes no mention of whether the magic performed by Witches is beneficial or harmful to anyone, but the overall impression that one gets is that it is the power of the magic that is the focus, rather than it's goodness or badness. However, this definition certainly does not take a neutral stance on the powerful form of magic known as Witchcraft. The thing is, though, that the negative assessment, indeed condemnation, of Witchcraft clearly derives from the purportedly diabolic source of the magical power in question, not on it's good or bad effects on others.

Put into practice, this diabolizing view of Witchcraft supported a vicious "logic" behind the persecution of magical adepts: anyone who possessed, or was believed to possess, the ability to work magical "Wonders ... which exceed the common Apprehension of Men" was thereby automatically suspected of being in league with "the Devil, or evil Spirits", that is, of being a Witch.

For a literary example of this logic in action, let us turn to Thomas Mallory, who wrote (in 1485) of the legendary Sir Balin, the impoverished and recently imprisoned knight who, alone among all the worthies of King Arthur's Court, including Arthur himself, had been able to draw from its sheath the sword born by the damsel sent to Arthur's Court by the Lady of the Lake. Arthur had nothing but praise for Balin after this feat (although previously his opinion had been rather different), but most of the other knights became ill-disposed toward him, muttering behind his back "that Balin did not this adventure all only by might, but by witchcraft."

About a century before Mallory we find another fictional example: Simon Magus is referred to as "a witche" in the Wycliffe Bible (Acts 8:1-13). Simon was a Witch not because he used magic to cause harm, but because he could perform magical feats such as healing the sick, predicting the future, flying, and so forth. Interestingly, the Book of Acts makes it clear that Simon was highly regarded for his magical abilities. The author seems to think that those who praised Simon were naive and insufficiently schooled in the matter of how proper Christians should view those who possess genuine magical powers.

The Christian belief, then, is that all genuinely magical abilities whatsoever (not to be confused, of course, with the ability of Jesus and his followers to perform "miracles") are necessarily indicative of an alliance with Satan and his Demons. This belief was to have deadly consequences on a horrific scale during the Burning Times (or, as the more delicately constituted prefer to denote it, "the early modern European Witch-hunts").

In the English speaking world (and whenever we venture into non-Anglophone territory a great deal of caution must be exercised in the use of the English words "Witch" and "Witchcraft") we find a great deal of evidence showing that the association between non-malefic magic (inclusive of specifically beneficial magic such as healing, as well as, more generally, benign or non-harmful magic) and Witchcraft played a significant role in the trials, convictions, and executions of accused Witches in England and Scotland (despite the fact that sometimes the opposite is asserted, inevitably, and unavoidably so, without any evidence).

Take for example the very first major outbreak of Witch-hunting in Scotland (or, to be more precise, what was previously believed to have been such - but that is another story ...). Everyone knows that the great Witch-hunt of 1590-91 centered around a supposed conspiracy to assassinate King James by both poison and the magical raising of storms while James traveled by sea. But that is not exactly how the whole thing got started:
"The prosecutions of 1590-1 began in November of 1590 when David Seton, the bailie depute from the East Lothian town of Tranent, suspected his servant, Geillis Duncan, of being a witch. Duncan had cured people of various ailments and performed 'many matters most miraculous', raising the suspicion that she had done these things by 'extraordinary and unlawful means'. To confirm his suspicions, Seton interrogated Duncan and reportedly [the cause of Levack's hesitance here is not at all clear, since there are in fact no grounds whatsoever for doubting that Duncan was in fact tortured] to secure her confession. He also extracted [that is to say, under torture] from her the names of several alleged accomplices. The group included Agnes Sampson, an elderly woman from a village outside the burgh of Haddington who was known primarily as a healer and a midwife ....."
The above is taken from page 35 of Brian Levack's book Witch-hunting in Scotland: Law, Religion, and Politics. The passage that Levack himself quotes is from the 1591 pamphlet published in London, Newes from Scotland. Here is an excerpt from the section of that pamphlet that Levack is quoting from:
Within the towne of Trenent in the Kingdome of Scotland, there dwelleth one Dauid Seaton, who being deputie Bailiffe in the saide Towne, had a maide seruant called Geillis Duncane, who vsed secretly to be absent and to lye foorth of her Maisters house euery other night: this Geillis Duncane took in hand to help all such as were troubled or greeued with any kinde of sicknes or infirmitie: and in short space did perfourme manye matters most miraculous, which thinges forasmuch as she began to doe them vpon a sodaine, hauing neuer doon the like before, made her Maister and others to be in great admiracion, and wondred thereat: by meanes wherof the saide Dauid Seaton had his maide in some great suspition, that she did not those things by naturall and lawfull wayes, but rather supposed it to be doone by some extraordinary and vnlawfull meanes.
Of the dozens of charges against Agnes Sampson, many of them were purely based upon her activities as a healer. Below are some of those charges (taken from Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland: Volume 1, Issue 3, 1833):
  • [That she] healed by witchcraft Johnne Thomsoune in Dirletoun
  • cured Johnne Peiny in Preston by prayer and incantation
  • used prayer and incantation to cure Halyburntoun, guidman of Inchcarne, and declared that no surgery or physic could help him, and he died as she foretold
  • cured by prayer and devilish charmes Bessie Aikenheid
  • healed John Ker of who lay mortally sick in house of Alexander Fairlie in Longniddrie
  • healed Johnne Duncan in Musselburgh
  • healing the son of the laird of Reidhallis by witchcraft, whom the surgeons had given up
  • curing Robert Diksoun in Bowtoune last summer
  • curing the wife of Johnne Cokburn the sheriff of Hadingtoun who was bewitched
  • curing Alesoun Ker, wife of Johnne Restoune, of a sickness contracted through Catherene Gray, a witch
  • curing wife of Robert Caringtoune in Traprene who was bewitched
The  most important thing about the cases of Geillis Duncan and Agnes Sampson is this: superficially these might easily be construed as straightforward cases fitting the paradigm of malefic Witchcraft, since they were both charged as would-be assassins who made use of poison and malefic weather-matic. But upon closer inspection both cases actually provide direct evidence that magical healers were definitely targeted by Witch-hunters.

Geillis and Duncan both had well-established reputations as effective magical healers. It was only once they were incarcerated and subjected to interrogation that anything about malefic magic came out. But in many cases (and in Scotland in particular this is true of the overwhelming majority of cases) we do not have reliable (or any) biographical information about individuals charged with Witchcraft. In a great many instances we do not even know the names of the accused. And also in many cases (and again in Scotland this the great majority) we do not have detailed (or any!) information about the specific charges against accused Witches. And only because we have a detailed list of the charges against her do we know that Agnes Sampson's activities as a healer played a central role in the case against her.

To what extent might Duncan and Sampson be considered mere aberrations? That will be considered in a future follow-up to this post. The first follow-up has now been posted: The Case of Katharina Kepler.


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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

"Witches" as "fortunetellers", "enchanters" and "magicians" in John Wilson's 1668 translation of Erasmus' "In Praise of Folly"

In 1509, Desiderius Erasmus wrote "In Praise of Folly". Like any good Renaissance Humanist, Erasmus wrote his essay in Latin and gave it a Greek title: Μωρίας Εγκώμιον. (Here is a link to the original: https://archive.org/details/stultitiaelaus00erasgoog.) In 1668 John Wilson's English translation of Erasmus' essay was published.

In the excerpt from Wilson's translation quoted below, notice that where Erasmus uses maleficium in the original, Wilson translates this as "Witch". No big surprise there, perhaps. But then again, perhaps not.

You see, if we read on, the original and the translation taken together clearly demonstrate that even when the word "Witch" is being used as a direct gloss of  maleficium, this does not necessarily refer to one who uses magic to cause harm. (Exclamation point!) Indeed, Erasmus has done us the favor us telling us explicitly, at least in his opinion (and when it comes to Latin Erasmus is someone whose opinions can be taken rather seriously), what sort of magical workers maleficium does refer to: "fortunetellers [sortilegos], enchanters [incantatores], and magicians [magos]."

Link to Wilson's translation: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1509erasmus-folly.asp

The following is from near the end, specifically the section "Folly Attends a Theological Dispute":
I was lately myself at a theological dispute, for I am often there, where when one was demanding what authority there was in Holy Writ that commands heretics to be convinced by fire rather than reclaimed by argument; a crabbed old fellow, and one whose supercilious gravity spoke him at least a doctor, answered in a great fume that Saint Paul had decreed it, who said, "Reject him that is a heretic, after once or twice admonition." And when he had sundry times, one after another, thundered out the same thing, and most men wondered what ailed the man, at last he explained it thus, making two words of one: "A heretic must be put to death." Some laughed, and yet there wanted not others to whom this exposition seemed plainly theological; which, when some, though those very few, opposed, they cut off the dispute, as we say, with a hatchet, and the credit of so uncontrollable an author. "Pray conceive me," said he, "it is written, 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch [maleficium] to live.' But every heretic bewitches the people; therefore, etc."

And now, as many as were present admired the man's wit, and consequently submitted to his decision of the question. Nor came it into any of their heads that that law concerned only fortunetellers [sortilegos], enchanters [incantatores], and magicians [magos], whom the Hebrews call in their tongue "Mecaschephim," witches or sorcerers.