Guilt files, Pagan edition

We sometimes reference our guilt files and my guilt file is reaching epic levels so I’m going to try to unload three recent stories into one post. I’m grouping them together under what I’ll call The Wild Hunt banner — they’re all stories that would or could be covered over at that blog that deals with Pagan and Heathen communities. The Wild Hunt, for what it’s worth, is now appearing over at Patheos so it’s interesting to see how Patheos is landing various bloggers across the religious spectrum.

The first was a story from The Tennessean about how Wiccan holidays have been added to the academic calendar at Vanderbilt University. What that means is that students may be excused from class that day should they need the day off for religious observances. It’s a fine story, as these things go, but reminds me of how much I enjoyed Associated Press reporter Tom Breen’s story on a similar situation at Marshall University four years ago. And you can read Wild Hunt coverage of the story with the hilarious headline “Pagans: Now With Actual Holidays.”

The second story was a weird little piece I found at an NBC Philadelphia site. But it’s about a practitioner of Palo Mayobe in Massachusetts. His barbershop was, we’re told, shut down after authorities found evidence of animal sacrifices in the building’s basement. Animal control removed the animals — two chickens and four roosters, one dead — but the shop remains closed indefinitely. The shop owner says his religious rights have been violated.

A much better story ran in the local paper South Coast Today. Here’s how it begins:

William Camacho has practiced Palo Mayombe, a syncretic Afro-Caribbean religion similar to Santeria, since he was a child.

Camacho, 41, said his religious practices, which include animal sacrificing, have gotten him into trouble with the city, which is considering filing animal cruelty charges against him.

“They violated my moral rights,” said Camacho, owner of Bad Boyz Cutz, a downtown barbershop that was closed Tuesday after city inspectors found evidence of ritualistic animal sacrifice there, officials said.

The story does leave some questions. For instance, why is the shop closed indefinitely? We learn that the animals were found after reports of a possible cockfighting operation. Animal control officers realized the animals were instead being used for religious sacrifice. Camacho says those sacrifices take place in rural settings. The technical reason the animals were seized was because they aren’t allowed in the city. Animal cruelty charges are pending against Camacho.

The story gives a description of Palo Mayombe which, we’re told “incorporates elements of Roman Catholicism along with West African and native Indian traditions. The religion venerates ancestors’ spirits and holds a belief in natural earth powers” and:

Like Santeria, Palo Mayombe features animal sacrifices, such as goats and chickens. The animals’ blood is thought to have a sacred, powerful life force capable of healing and warding off evil spirits. After the sacrifice, the animals are cooked and eaten.

“The roosters go to heaven after the sacrifice. It’s the traditional way,” said Camacho, who has tattoos on his arms of his children’s names, Jesus Christ and an Indian female warrior. He added that he occasionally uses spells for protection.

The story includes plenty of explanation from Camacho but it might have also been nice to talk to an outside expert on Palo. Still, other context was nice. The reporter mentioned how the law handles ritual animal sacrifices in various municipalities. The ending also wasn’t bad:

Also saying that Palo Mayombe has prophetic powers, Camacho said Tuesday’s events were actually predicted four days ago in a friend’s dream.

“And who shows up at my door today? The cops.”

It’s a nice combination of including actual religion in a story with some colorful quotes.

And the final story I wanted to look at was the dramatic release of the West Memphis Three. This is a very sad story all around. Three young boys were murdered two decades ago. Three men were imprisoned for 18 years for the crime. They walked free this week, one of them leaving death row to do so.

The case itself is complex, as was the arrangement that got them released. The men maintained their innocence while pleading guilty and the state considers them child killers but safe enough to be set free.

There are also interesting religion angles. Here’s a snippet from the New York Times report:

It was May 1993 when the nude bodies of three 8-year-old boys, Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore, were found in a drainage canal in Robin Hood Hills, a wooded area in the poor Arkansas town of West Memphis. The bodies appeared to have been mutilated, and their hands were tied to their feet.

The grotesque nature of the murders, coming in the midst of a nationwide concern about satanic cult activity, especially among teenagers, led investigators from the West Memphis Police Department to focus on Mr. Echols, a troubled yet gifted 18-year-old who wore all black, listened to heavy metal music and considered himself a Wiccan. Efforts to learn more about him through a woman cooperating with the police led to Mr. Misskelley, a 17-year-old acquaintance of Mr. Echols’s.

After a nearly 12-hour police interrogation, Mr. Misskelley confessed to the murders and implicated Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin, who was 16 at the time, though his confession diverged in significant details, like the time of the murders, with the facts known by the police. Mr. Misskelley later recanted, but on the strength of that confession he was convicted in February 1994.

Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin soon after were convicted of three counts of capital murder in a separate trial in Jonesboro, where the proceedings had been moved because of extensive publicity in West Memphis. The convictions were largely based on the testimony of witnesses who said they heard the teenagers talk of the murders, and on the prosecution’s argument that the defendants had been motivated as members of a satanic cult. Mr. Misskelley’s confession was not admitted at their trial, though recently a former lawyer for that jury’s foreman filed an affidavit saying that the foreman, determined to convict, had brought the confession up in deliberations to sway undecided jurors.

The story is lengthy, mentions some documentaries that got the convicted men some help, and also that for all of the celebrity involvement in the case, some local people believe strongly in the guilt of the men who were released. But it’s even more complex:

But even some of the victims’ families began to doubt the men’s guilt, including Stevie Branch’s mother, Pamela Hobbs, and John Mark Byers, the father of Chris Byers. Both attended the hearing. “Three young men have had 18 years of their lives taken away,” said Mr. Byers, who appeared in the original documentary profanely condemning the men. “To see them get out and have a normal life is a blessing from God.”

It’s an interesting story and one that I expected would receive far more coverage. The part that interested me even more than the guilt or innocence of these particular men was the mood of the era in which they were convicted. The whole Satanic Panic thing. I had hoped to see a few more stories about the Satanic panic and maybe some benefit of hindsight into what was real and what was imagined from that era. Once again, The Wild Hunt has some interesting analysis.

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  • Will

    What I want to know is, when will neo-pagans start demanding that alternate-side parking rules be suspended for sabbats? (And how will Dan Halloran vote?)

  • Grumpy

    One quibble with the first sentence of your Story Three. It’s the West Memphis Three. We Memphians get enough (erroneous) bad press!

  • Ray Ingles

    I had hoped to see a few more stories about the Satanic panic and maybe some benefit of hindsight into what was real and what was imagined from that era.

    Was there anything real in that whole episode?

  • Mollie

    Was there anything real in that whole episode?

    I’m a strong skeptic of such panic attacks, whatever their form. I put that in there under the idea that I’d be willing to hear evidence from the pro-panic side. Also, it was such a long time ago that I can’t quite remember the specifics of the charges. It seems to me that this West Memphis Three story (and thanks, Grumpy, I corrected that above) would be the perfect hook for some analysis there.

  • Dave

    In the 1980s the Humanist magazine tracked down claims about Satanic ritual misbehavior and found them without exception to be bogus.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    I’m flattered that a whole section of your guilt file is named after my blog. If that isn’t success, I don’t know what is!

    As for the 3 stories:

    1. The story was pretty by-the-numbers, and I agree that the Marshall version of the same story was handled a bit better. I think the journalists covering the Vanderbilt story missed an opportunity to not reference other cases of Pagan holidays getting the official nod from a learning institution (a growing trend).

    2. This story will get a lot bigger if it does go to court. We’ll see. For now it’s a he-said, she-said. Could have used more expert commentary. Journalist tip: never confuse Palo with Santeria, they can be very different, though there are instances of practitioners who are initiates in both traditions.

    3. I’m surprised how little Satanic Panic has been explored, as this was, by many accounts, the last big case from that era. I’ve looked quite a bit on the politicians, law enforcement officials, religious leaders, and “occult experts” who are still dining out on the fabrications of that period. I’d also like to see a look back at how mainstream journalists helped fan the flames of this panic. Remember, this stuff was on 20/20 and Oprah, taken quite seriously. As for proof it’s real? None of the kind alleged. No secretive underground Satanic abuse network. There may have been isolated incidents of abusive individuals, but they weren’t working in concert with anyone else, and in most cases, weren’t Satanists of any stripe.

  • Jerry

    hilarious headline “Pagans: Now With Actual Holidays.”

    I’m not sure why you find that headline so funny, but it reads condescending as well as misleading to me since it’s a piece about recognizing Pagan holidays not creating them from thin air with the assumption that before this act there were none.

  • Bethanie Ryan

    I agree with the other comments here. I wish the Satanic Panic was explored a little more. I also wish that journalists and other writers would be more careful to differentiate between Wicca and “satanic worship.”

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “I’m not sure why you find that headline so funny, but it reads condescending as well as misleading to me since it’s a piece about recognizing Pagan holidays not creating them from thin air with the assumption that before this act there were none.”

    Since I wrote the headline in question, I feel very qualified to respond!

    It was a tongue-in-cheek joke among us Pagans. We know we have lots and lots of holidays, but always find it somewhat amusing and surprising when institutions and media outlets discover this is so.

  • Mollie


    I love your earnestness. But yes, if you know where The Wild Hunt is coming from, it’s pretty clearly sarcasm.


  • Julia

    Considering that holiday is a mash up of holy day, I thought that was the joke. Or do Wiccans consider their special days holy? If so, I learned yet another useful tidbit from Get Religion.

  • Dave

    Julia, Pagan traditions typically have their own collective term like “sabbat” for their sacred days. But “Pagan holiday” (and, indeed, “Satanic holiday”) are common enough terms in the larger culture to be used by Pagans.

  • David Dashifen Kees

    @Julia – I think most Pagans would consider our special days holy, but as with all things Pagan, different traditions and even different groups within the same tradition might have a different answer.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Now that we are expected to treat witchcraft as a serious religion–when will the media start delving into how that will impact Church-State relations with it and its believers. In Salem, Ma. the symbiotic relation between the State and Wiccans has become almost bizarre. There is now even a head witch designated by the city.
    What’s next??? President Obama naming the next Cardinal-Archbishop of Washington, D.C.?????

  • Dave

    Deacon, the official witchiness of Salem is purely promotional, a town that formerly had a serious economic role now forced to hustle tourist dollars.

    However, to the church-state purist it is a problem.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Dave–since Wiccans insist on being respected as a co-equal religion to others–no matter how much Salem is only doing what it is doing for the tourist buck– motivation for promoting a religion should not be an excuse for breaking down the Wall of separation between Church and State.
    I’d just like to see the media locally -or now nationally, delve a bit into this issue. Can Wiccans have it both ways?? Be treated seriously as a religion (as they want) yet follow none of the constitutional rules that other religions must follw???? Or would they prefer to go back to being treated as if what they are doing is basically a joke and only playacting for entertainment purposes and making a buck.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Deacon Breshnahan,

    “There is now even a head witch designated by the city.”

    No. There isn’t.

    Quote from one of Laurie Cabot’s many online biographies:

    In 1977, Laurie finally received the title she had long been seeking and was named ‘the Official Witch of Salem’ by the then governor of Massachusetts ‘Michael Dukakis’. He bestowed upon Laurie the states Patriot Award, known as the ‘Paul Revere’ citation, this is an historical award issued by the Governor to honour citizens of the state for their public service. The citation for the award is signed by the Governor and the Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and in her case it reads: “I proclaim Laurie Cabot the Official Witch of Salem for her work with children of special needs”.

    1. It was in 1977 and was purely honorary. There no political or religious power conferred in the honor, nor do I believe Michael Dukakis was making a theological statement in doing it.
    2. No other “official” Witch of any sort has been named in any context within Salem.
    3. If Salem were handing out “Head Witch” titles you can bet the Pagan community itself would be one of the first groups in opposition to such a thing.

    Also, Witchcraft is a real-live religion. Honest. So yes, we “insist” on being respected.

  • Mollie

    Deacon, etc.,

    Please keep comments focused on journalism. And please redouble efforts to keep conversation here respectful. If you want to discuss religious disagreements or what not, this is not the place.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Isn’t bringing up an issue–related to the original topic– that the media is not discussing or debating, a journalism issue???
    I have no problem with Wiccans wanting to be treated as a legit religion. But how would people–and the media– react if the governor of Mass. –because of some deed done by a Christian bishop– named him the “Official Bishop of Ma.”
    Either that title was given with tongue– in– cheek or no governor had any business granting her that title and she had no business accepting it.
    And, considering the growing recognition of Witchcraft as a legit religion–the media should be bringing up and debating the issue.

  • dalea

    One fact left out of the Wicca story is that many Wiccans regard the day as beginning at sunset and ending the following sunset. Another is that Wiccan services are usually held in the evening. So while the calender may show Samhain as Oct 31, the service will be in the evening and the day off would more sensibly Nov. 1. That way the service will not be rushed by a need to get up and go to work. Minor point, but worth pointing out.

  • R9