PantheaCon & The Two Party System

I’ve been going to PantheaCon for many years. For about a decade it’s been held at the Doubletree Hotel in San Jose, California, a large convention hotel. It’s gladdening to see it growing to where it now attracts about 3000 people from far and near. It can be overload with workshops, presentations, and rituals going from the early morning hours to well after midnight, to say nothing of the maze of hospitality suites and accompanying revelry. For three and a half days the hotel is abuzz with energy with rituals being conducted by FoDLA, ADF, Ekklesia Antinoou, Hrafnar. Thiasos Olympikos, Feri, Reclaiming and so many other groups.


Over the years the programming has become much more diverse, there being many more reconstructionist tracks, for instance. Yet often in events supposedly for the general audience the language remains “Wicca-centric”, i.e. the God and the Goddess, the Four elements, etc. I think the tensions this generates will be around for a long time in Neopagan events, but as non-Wiccans become a larger and larger proportion of the pagan demographic this must be challenged.


Wicca, especially in its British and British-derived traditions, is a very gender essentialist religion. This is in striking contrast to polytheistic religions, where the deities themselves mirror many gender and sexuality possibilities. Gender essentialism reared its ugly head this past weekend in a Dianic ritual put on by the Amazon Tribe of CAYA Coven, which did not advertise that its ritual was only for those women who are biological females. Some transgendered women were turned away at the door. Fortunately the next day a discussion was held about this discrimination, but some of those who put on the ritual claimed that this was an issue of religious freedom. I find this a suspect defense; it seems akin to arguments raised by Islamists in defense of so-called honor killings (sic), or purdah, or of the Mormon church’s fighting same-sex marriage and interfering in electoral politics in California. Is it fair for the Dianics to claim this exclusion of some women is simply an issue of their religious freedom? I think it’s also important to note this occurred at a public event in a hotel and the description in the program schedule for the event was so vague that I thought men would be able to attend this woman centered rite. A further terrible irony is that the rite was for Lilith, who is often portrayed as transgendered or gender-variant.


A lot of leaders in the Neopaganism scene came of age and were influenced deeply by 70s feminism, by writers like Barbara Walker, Mary Daly, Riane Eisler, Merlin Stone and Marija Gimbutas. There’s much that was wonderful there, but their gender views are ones that through the way they essentialized ‘woman’ excluded many women, including many African American women to name but one example, (which has been written about cogently by bell hooks). And of course, many women don’t identify with motherhood or childbirth, which are so emphasized in these accounts of what is ‘woman’. At the same time French feminists were already developing a non-essentializing view of gender, for example, brilliant theorists like Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva, as well as Judith Butler in the US. I can remember when Eisler’s and Gimbutas’ view of the past seemed a hopeful one, but I still had doubts, as queer people had no real place within this vision, which exploded when I started reading people like Helene Cixous, Gloria Anzaldua, Adelle Olivia Gladwell and bell hooks.


So this opens into the huge sea of gender essentialism in neopaganisms, both in Wiccan and Ceremonial Magic circles, the whole notion that magic is based on polarity, the polarity of the archetypal masculine and feminine. Such beliefs have often led to exclusion of homosexual and bisexual individuals or at least the continued marginalization thereof. I hope these are areas that will become questioned more and more in the various interlocking communities that make up the contermporary pagan world.


Gender polarity may be a valid method for some, but it’s simply inauthentic as a foundational view of magic. So much of traditional magic is based on working with language, the textual magic found everywhere from Alexandrian Egypt to the Sorceresses of Larzac (in Gaul). I myself work with the Celtic magical poetic practice known as filidecht, again no gender polarity required!


I have more to say about these issues in the future but for now some more discussion of the gender problems at this year’s PantheaCon can be found at the links below.




Animist Cinema

The term animism has a primitive ring for many, so it might comes as a surprise that one of the world’s most successful film directors is making animist films, yet that is true of Hiyao Miyazaki. A huge number of children and adults have viewed My Neighbor Totoro. The movie’s protagonist, the little girl Mei, is just the right age—not yet fully socialized, psychological filters not fully in place—to experience the other-than-humans who surround and even live in the house her father rents in the rice growing hinterlands beyond Tokyo. Even the dustbunnies (or soot sprites) in the traditional-style house are vital and spirited. Older sister Setsuki still maintains her sense of wonder and comes to interact with the spirits also. The Totoros are forest spirits, and the big Totoro that befriends the girls is called King of the Forest. His home is a giant sacred tree, specifically, a camphor. One interpretation of Japanese mythology suggests that the original ancestor god of the Japanese was a lofty tree spirit. A god named Tatagi is mentioned in the Kojiki, Japan’s ancient collection of myth. Moto-ori Norinaga, a famous 18th century theorist of Shinto, believed Tatagi was the same as the first deity, Musubi-no-Kami.


Setsuki’s father, who is a writer and professor, has interestingly enough chosen a borderland, a liminal zone, for his retreat-like residence—a region called satoyama in Japanese. This word refers to a border zone or area between mountain foothills and cultivated flat land. Sato means arable and livable land or home land, while yama means mountain. Satoyama areas have been created over centuries of small scale local agriculture and appropriate use of the forests.  Their mixed character promotes biodiversity if attended by careful and caring traditional human ways, somewhat like traditional hedgerows in Britain.


That the girl’s mother is hospitalized heightens the sense of being away from the mundane world, a situation that further opens the girls to the sacred. A grandmotherly neighbor plays an important role linking the girls to an elder generation that is both archetypal and specific to this locale. In an intriguing relationship between art and life Totoro has become a mascot for the preservation of satoyama areas in Japan, with funds raised at a Pixar auction of drawing and painting inspired by the film. In fact, in 2009 the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco held an exhibition of artwork from this “Totoro Forest Project Charity Auction” of almost 200 pieces, many of them quite inspiring. The gift continues…. The proceeds went to protect the Sayama Forest surrounded by the Tokyo metropolitan area, a woodland said to be Miyazaki’s inspiration for Totoro’s home (info, though a bit dated, can be found at Some of the art from the auction can be seen here:



While Miyazaki has stated he has made his films primarily for the Japanese they have gained a global audience, and their animism, subtlety flowing through the narratives, has met deep yearning for a connection with the greater ecological world. There is a friendliness here in these small gods that is surprising, perhaps. That Setsuki shares an umbrella in a rainstorm with Totoro while waiting at a train stop is a particularly poignant example, and one that has become a popular icon. They call to us in this animist cinema in voices that are close, intimate, and outside of the conception most westerners have of religion, that is Abrahamic religion.



What I think Miyazaki has succeeded in is a cinema of re-enchantment on a transnational level, as much as it is rooted in non-statist Shinto  (see “Forest Spirits, Giant Insects and World Trees:  the Nature Vision of Hiyao Miyazaki” by Lucy Wright for analysis of Miyazaki’s complex relationship to Shinto). Polytheism and animism are part of that vast project of re-enchantment of the world that has been so dis-enchanted in the Cartesian modernism of the west, in which viewpoint the part that thinks is disrupted from that which extends—leading to the belief system that the earth, the forests, the seas are only dead resource, and that animals can well be tortured for industrial medicine, as they are lacking sentience, anyway. Miyazaki’s films offer healing nutrients to such a wasteland worldview.





The MU & the Many

The MU & the Many

While interest in polytheism is increasing in western countries, much of Neopaganism seems to be in a headlong rush to mainstream (that is, model on Christian forms) itself; parallels could be made with the gay and lesbian movement. Paganism rose into the public light, at least in part, as a critique of established religions in the decades of the 60s and 70s. Unfortunately, a fair amount of the current scene has shut off to intellectual reflection and thinking. Here will fall viewpoints that some will find provocative. Something I am especially interested in are multiple practices, pathways, and what Erynn Rowan Laurie has called polypraxy ( One of the things that makes most sense in a polytheistic point of view, as opposed to a monotheistic or duotheistic (typical of Wicca) viewpoint, is that a world of many forces, not necessarily in harmony or agreement to say the least, best reflects our lived experience. William S. Burroughs, who was a major proponent of polytheism, said, regarding monotheism, which he called the One God Universe (OGU): “He can do nothing, since the act of doing requires opposition. He knows everything, so there is nothing for him to learn…The OGU is a pre-recorded universe in which He is the recorder. It’s a flat thermodynamic universe, since it has no friction by definition. So He invents friction and conflict, pain, fear, sickness, famine, war, old age and Death.” In contrast, Burroughs wrote that the “Magical Universe, MU, is a universe of many gods, often in conflict. So the paradox of an all-powerful, all knowing god who permits suffering, evil and death does not arise” (Western Lands). The problem of evil has been one of the toughest puzzles of Christian theology; if the premise is that God is the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, then how to account for the Holocaust, the genocidal conquest of the Americas, and innumerable other slaughters, atrocities and horrific sufferings of good people? This issue is called theodicy by the theologians.

The One (God) sets itself up as the master narrative, an act thereby establishing all other deities/realities as fictional, while simultaneously denying its own status as situated (see media theory group CCRU). Monotheism well seems to reflect monoculture, mirroring the endlessly repeating (genetically modified) corn field. Polytheism/animism operates in a way comparable to the ecological world. For Burroughs, gods are everywhere and confounding the assumptions of those raised under OGU, some of them may be as ephemeral as butterflies.  The intricacies of polytheistic worldview(s) make more sense of the world most of us have experienced I would think.

John Michael Greer has written of a world full of gods. Such possibilities to find ourselves among such a multitude! In Tantra, many deities are visualized within the human body itself. The numinous is all around us; perhaps we’d do well to focus on the ‘small gods’ as well as the ‘great ones’. Many traditions tell of millions of gods. Shinto practitioners speak of 8 million kami. I suspect some gods have been put out of commission by wanton human destruction (it’s a hard thing to wrap one’s head around, but I think it’s useful to consider).

Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian director, made a big impact on me years ago when I watched his Medea (the heroine played by the opera diva Maria Callas); when Medea arrives in her new Greek home with Jason, she disembarks the ship and immediately starts to make offerings to the spirits of the new land. This is something still often missing from contemporary paganism; we need to land, to come ashore where we are as it were. We may have brought our household gods, but we also need to get outside the circle and begin the process of uncovering/imagining/meeting the presences around us on and in our hills, shores, creeks, trees and bushes. This is the local aspect of religion that has the power to deeply change the way we live and relate to the world around us in a practice of re-enchantment.



A long pole or a spar rising from the keel or deck of a ship and supporting the yards, booms, and rigging.

Nuts (as acorns) accumulated on the forest floor and often serving as food for animals

(from Merriam-Webster’s).

Welcome to Finnchuill’s Mast, a blog of pagan, polytheist, animist, and ecological matters! The Mast will focus on issues of polytheism, animism, ecological spirituality, and related issues, including looking at the work of various philosophers and culture makers whose work has much to contribute to 21st century pagan polytheism.