Witch at Large: Ruminations from a Grey Perspective

Seeing Paganism in terms of being a movement, explorations of our history, societal context, comparisons to other religious movements, and general Pagan culture.

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Claremont Pagan Studies Conference - I

Twelfth Conference on Current Pagan Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California.

Longtime pal Anna Korn and I shared the long drive to the Los Angeles area for this annual event that feeds my soul.  I’ve attended several times since I was invited to be a keynote speaker in 2009.  Last year was the first time Anna went now that she’s retired.

I find that this precious little conference (about 50 people) strikes a good balance between the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, which draws thousands of participants from all over the world and of which Pagan Studies and related sections (Religion & the Environment, Goddess Studies, New Religious Movements, Ritual Studies, et al.) are only a small part, and PantheaCon, which draws a general Pagan public, features a small number of scholarly presentations, and often tends to elicit fractiousness about one or another issue each year.

Each year presenters explore a theme.  This year's theme was Social Justice.

Saturday, January 24

Armando Marini, “Murtagh An Doile,” a co-founder of the Pagan History Project gave an appropriately historical talk on “Elitism and Identity Formation in American Craft and Paganism: A Historical Perspective” in which spoke knowledgeably about the underpinnings of contemporary American expressions of Pagan thought and practice found in Freemasonry, fraternal orders, early folkloric studies, as well as the spiritualist movement in 19th century America and the “goddess movement” of the 1970s.  Always fascinating to me, and always too brief.

Kellen Smith followed with a presentation of her doctoral study on “Feminist Spirituality: From Counterculture Revolution to the Feminist Movement.” Listening to her talk was like hearing one’s personal political history.  Among her visuals were images of key, dare I say “ovarial,” books such as Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman (1976, when I received it as a birthday gift and it turned my thinking around), Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), and Elizabeth Gould Davis’ The First Sex (1971), along with photos of the actions of W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), among whose NY members was Robin Morgan, editor of another germinal anthology, Sisterhood Is Powerful (1970). 

Kellen had difficulty locating feminist periodicals from those years.  I mentioned that I had sent lots of old issues of WomanSpirit, Women of Power, Calyx, Lady-Unique-Inclination-of-the-Night, Chrysalis, Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, and others whose names escape my senior mind at the moment, plus a few more contemporary ones like Bitch and off our backs, to the New Alexandrian Library in Delaware.

As it happens, after my early months meeting with a consciousness raising group – that’s what we called those intimate women-only weekly gatherings where we shared aspects of our lives not normally discussed, offered sympathy and support, and analyzed how we saw our experiences in society – I joined with others to form the San Francisco Women’s Studies Collective.  Out of that group, three of us (Sandra Butler, Carolyn Shaffer, and myself) created a resources list of feminist books and other publications and resources.  There wasn’t a very long list then, maybe six double-sided typewritten pages.  We sold photocopies of it for cost (something like 25 or 50 cents).

Marie Cartier, Preview of The Homofiles, a documentary co-produced with Kimberly Esslinger.  We viewed the trailer which had fascinating interviews of Lesbians both in and out of the closet.  Marie has presented papers at past Claremont gatherings I’ve attended and I’ve always enjoyed them, and more importantly, I’ve learned things I otherwise wouldn’t have.

Keynote: Gus DiZerega, “Rethinking Social Justice in Accordance with Pagan Values” Gus spoke enthusiastically about Aristotle, James Madison and the Federalist Papers, specifically Federalist Paper #10, and John Locke as forefathers who wrote about issues of justice.  I didn’t take notes because I haven’t yet regained the ability to write legible handwriting since my stroke in July.  However, I did manage to write down an African proverb he cited that I think is worth quoting here:  “I am because we are.”  As someone with a ‘relational’ personality and worldview, this proverb resonates strongly in me.

Wendy Griffin, ‘The New Telling”:  Last year Wendy gave a presentation on Paganism and the state of our home Earth that elicited tears from everyone listening.  This year she had reworked some of that data into a story.  She began with a framework of the Triple Goddess, saying that the Maiden asks, “What about me?”  The Mother asks, “What about the children?”  And the Crone asks, “What about the planet?”  She also cited The Journey of the Universe, by Thomas Berry, and works on eco-consciousness, specifically a film, by Yale professor Mary Evelyn Tucker.  Mary Evelyn and her husband, John Grim, founded the Emerging Earth Community.  (Small world: Way back in 1998, John and I were both participants in the Biodiversity Project Spirituality Working Group, a small gathering of religious and environmental leaders, in Madison, WI; our work informed the publication of Building Partnerships with the Faith Community: A Resource Guide for Environmental Groups.  Unfortunately, the Biodiversity Project is no longer, nor is the guide available.  The current webpage of The Biodiversity Project is a different entity.) 

Annie Brigit Waters followed Wendy with “Sustainability Must Embrace the Sacred.” Annie is an active member of the Grange in Willits, California, way up in rural Mendocino County.  Mendocino County, center of Ecotopia, is a far cry from the cornfields of Iowa and the fields of the Midwest where the Grange (National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry (formed as a national organization with a local focus in 1867 right after the dreadful American Civil War) movement had its earliest chapters.  

Annie explained that the notions of Unity, Liberty, and Charity are its underlying values.  Although women have been equal members since the inception of the Grange, the founders were seven men.  They chose three Latin goddesses to symbolize their values, or as I would see it, as the matrons of the organization: Flora, Ceres, and Pomona. 

Art and decorative architectural embellishments featuring imagery of sheaves of grain, baskets of apples, cornucopia, and Romantic images of these goddesses adorn Grange halls around the country.

I’m given to understand that the founders of the Grange wrote a series of rituals that in some way incorporated these goddesses.  I haven’t been able to find any online.  Regardless, however, what especially thrills me about Annie’s work with the Grange is her creation and performance of rituals devoted to these three goddesses.  These rituals can bring participants and viewers into new relationships, new understandings, new reverence for the gifts to humans that Flora, Ceres, Pomona embody. 

[To be continued.] 

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Aline O’Brien (M. Macha NightMare), Witch at Large, has circled with people of diverse Pagan paths throughout the U.S., and in Canada and Brazil.  Author of Witchcraft and the Web (2001) and Pagan Pride (2004), and co-author, with Starhawk, of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (1997), Macha has also contributed to anthologies, periodicals, textbooks, and encyclopedias.  A member of the American Academy of Religion, the Marin Interfaith Council, and the Nature Religion Scholars Network, Macha also serves as a national interfaith representative for the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and on the Advisory Board of the Sacred Dying Foundation.  Having spent the last eleven years developing and teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary, the first and only seminary serving the Neopagan community, Macha now serves on its Board of Directors. An all-round Pagan webweaver, she speaks on behalf of Paganism to news media and academic researchers, and lectures at colleges, universities and seminaries. www.machanightmare.com


  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard Thursday, 18 February 2016

    W.oman, do you never rest? Thanks for this. Someday I hope to attend

  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Tuesday, 23 February 2016

    We'll have to persuade them to invite you as a keynote. ;-)

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