|"The Nightmare" by John Henry Fuseli|
San Diego, CA
Day Two: Saturday Late Afternoon and Evening
For the 4:00 p.m. session I passed on three others of interest.
Indigenous Religious Traditions focused on “Ritual Objects and Materiality in the Study of Native American Traditions.” Anthropologists have considered the importance of social and historical context while neglecting physicality and materiality in such circumstances as indigenous rituals “tied to particular places and things in irreducible ways. Panelists spoke on
· “Maya Persons, Places, & Things: Relational Theory and Maya Blood Offerings to the Ceiba Tree”;
· “Ayahuasca as ‘Teacher Plant’: An Ethno-Metaphysics of Santo Daime’s Botanical Sacrament”;
· “Animacy and Agency in Puppets, Masks, and Other Ritual Objects”;
· “La Vara: Divining Bundle of the Highland May Ritual Specialist”; and
· “The Way of the Mask: The Intersection of Ritual and Value in Highland Guatemalan Religious Dance Masks.”
Blood offerings, entheogens/psychotropics, puppets (poppets?), masks – just some of the less conventional sacred technologies that we Pagans often employ.
Ritual Studies Group: “Ritual Assembly and the Dynamics of Democracy.” This panel offered five different ways in which ritual acts and performances reveal and mobilize culture resources and initiate changes to establish new conditions for democratization processes. …[P]eople entering ritual activities establish new conditions and forms of social and political engagement, and … how they are continuously renegotiating social identities. …[R]ituals significantly impact democratic processes, both in reshaping society and providing the grounds for responding to local and global crises. Thus ritual is not just the outcome of social construction, but serves as a precondition for the construction and transformation of society.”
As a ritualist myself, I do see ritual as a vehicle of social change (not necessarily with respect to democracy). The cultures from which these papers were drawn include, among others, Hong Kong, rural Uttar Pradesh, Norway, and Turkey.
Tantric Studies Group: “Out for Blood: Sacrifice, Tantra, and Normative Hinduism.” “Taking animal sacrifice as the quintessential pubic marker of Shakta Tantra in much of South Asia, this panel examines how historical, regional, practical, and economic contexts have shaped the ways various traditions … relate the theory and practice of blood offerings to mainstream brahmanical Hinduism…case studies detail some of the social effects and rhetorical uses of … sacrifices within Tantra and Shaktism…while particularizing our understanding of how these categories relate to other comparatively peripheral formations including folk and tribal religions. Taken together, these papers highlight the role of sacrifice as a flashpoint for divergent articulation and valuations of Hinduism’s center and its frontiers.” [emphasis added] Could you not change a few words and apply this statement to contemporary Paganism? Given much discussion of animal sacrifice in the Neo-Pagan world, it would seem we might have something to learn from these traditions.
One paper in particular, “Blood in the Mainstream: Kali Puja and Tantric Orthodox in Early Modern Bengal,” intrigued me because I am a devotee of Ma Kali. I perform Kali puja at the New Moon at a local store before altar in a temporary temple. The pujaris (priest/esses) who conduct the ceremonies I attend are trained at Dakshineshwar, and the kirtan singers and musicians are mainly Indian rather than Euro-Americans, though I’ve seen no evidence of blood sacrifice, and suspect that most attendees are vegetarians.
When I ran into Steve Wehmeyer on Friday, he said he’d come to substitute for his wife, Kerry Noonan, to chair a wildcard session that he raved would be my best option among all these tempting sessions. So that’s where I went.
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Wildcard Session: “Contemporary Scholars, Contemporary People, and Belief in Spirits: Folklore, Religion and the Supernatural.”
We met in a moderate-sized room, and there were folks sitting on the floor and hanging in the doorway. This panel could easily have filled a larger meeting space. This, to me, indicates a growing interest in exploring these phenomena, and comparing them with our own personal experiences. Perhaps ‘religious scholarship meets UPGs (unverified personal gnosis).’
Robert Glenn Howard, from the University of Wisconsin spoke on “Hoarding the Spirit: Discourse Approach to Folklore of the Supernatural.” He explained that discourse analysis accepts the experience of the spiritual being as real at the level of experience. The vernacular authority, on the other hand, is “an appeal to trust in what is handed down outside of any formally instituted social formation.” He cited Don Yoder’s definition of folk religion, that folk religion is separate from but not necessarily in opposition to or replacement of official religion.
As I mentioned above, I am a Kali worshipper, so I was familiar with the next panelist, Jeffrey Kripal , from his controversial book Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna. I also heard him speak on a panel on North American Hinduism at the AAR in San Francisco in 2011.
At this session, Dr. Kripal gave something of a fan’s appreciation entitled “Comparativism Unbound: The life and Work of David Hufford.” It seems that Dr. Hufford has been Dr. Kripal’s mentor for most of his professional life, and from what we saw and heard, this relationship proved beneficial to religious scholarship.
He described what he calls ‘supernatural assault phenomena,’ also known as ‘sleep paralysis’ or ‘Old Hag Syndrome.’ These phenomena are called by many terms and found throughout the world. Described as an experience that occurs when one is awake, lying supine, and experiences physical paralysis, fear, the sense that someone is in the room, someone is on one’s chest. An ‘old hag attack may be accompanied by the sound of footsteps, very soft, wearing no shoes. This is the source of such phrases as “hag-ridden” and “haggard.”
Dr. Hufford’s research centered in Newfoundland, where the included his own experience plus cross-cultural subjects. He “found that these assaults are not associated with any anthropological variable. … People are being perfectly rational when they are reporting them.”
“Sleep paralysis does not seem to be causal. It is more like the metaphor: the sun must go down for us to see the stars. Night is a condition for us to see the stars but they do not cause the stars.” 
David J. Hufford, from Penn State-Hershey and currently working with the Samueli Institute exploring the science of health presented a talk entitled “The Experience-Centered Approach to Spiritual Belief: Understanding the Persistent Enchantment of Modernity” immediately after Dr. Kripal.
Wow, this talk was even more fascinating than the two previous talks! Gwendolyn took lots of notes, not especially easy for this reader to interpret, because we all have our own shorthands in note-taking. Rather than incorporating her notes here, I’ll simply note a couple of things that impressed me most.
Dr. Hufford cited Francisco Goya’s 1799 etching called “The Sleep of Reason Produces
Monsters,” which I include here because, as they say, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
He has also published what appears to be a fascinating study, The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. I recommended Hubbard’s book to my friend Megory Anderson, thinking it might prove germane to her work with the dying. . Further, Dr. Hufford's work at the Samueli Institute benefits veterans who return from the front with hidden injuries.
Our own Sabina Magglioco provided the response to the panelists, wearing her super-cool magical coat.
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Finally, on Saturday evening the Pagan scholars and other Pagans in attendance met for a dinner filled with lively chat and warm camaraderie. This dinner is one of the few opportunities for all of us to see one another, since the Annual Meeting itself is vast and varied, and chances of our crossing paths are limited.
Yours in service to Coventina,
Macha NightMare/Aline O'Brien
Yours in service to Coventina,
Macha NightMare/Aline O'Brien