The Spirit in the Sky

Americans live in woeful ignorance of religion. We labor under the delusion that the world is dominated by three monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) and everything else can be quietly lumped into the "Eastern Religion" or "New Age" sections of our bookstore.Americans have always viewed the world as a vast buffet, a table covered with international delectables spread out for our delighted sampling. We read lightweight books with titles like A Pocket Guide to Zen while watching videotapes explaining the basics of yoga. We hang Native American dreamcatchers from our rear view mirrors, and with what purpose? Do we plan to fall asleep at the wheel? Our dilettante approach to alternative spirituality produces exactly this sort of metaphysical confusion, creating a culture in which religion involves either a strict allegiance to a monolithic mainstream or a notoriously vapid spiritual dabbling (think of Madonna's trifling studies of Hinduism and Kabbala).There are genuine spiritual seekers out there, and there are religions with long histories and complex theologies that are never mentioned in college survey courses in religious studies. Some are indigenous religions, beaten down by hundreds of years of imperialism and dismissed as primitive practices. Some are modern creations, liberally borrowing elements from past cosmologies to create a contemporary vision of spirituality. Some are strange hybrids, dismissed (sometimes unfairly) by mainstream religions as cults but believed fervently by their followers. Some are religious societies, where individual members may belong to any religion but band together over shared rituals and goals.What follows is a brief, necessarily incomplete selection of the incredible range of religious practice. This is intended as an introduction, nothing more, to the magnificent diversity of human belief.Druidic SectsThe Druids were a secret society of the ancient Celts, but their membership differed from that of contemporary secret societies in that they practiced a specific religion. The Druids were an exalted caste of priests (men and women) strict in their beliefs and practices, and their caste was the third highest in Irish society. The Druids inhabited Gaul, Britain and Ireland, but the Irish Druids are those whom we are most familiar with nowadays.Study for initiation into Druid sects lasted more than 20 years and was tedious: No information was to be recorded in writing - all lessons were taught orally and were required to be recalled from memory. Some Druids are rumored to have begun scribing Druidic practices, rituals and beliefs, but virtually all of that information was lost in fires. Most of what is currently known about the Druids comes from opinionated and biased writings of the Greeks and Romans.What we do know is that the Druids (sometimes referred to nowadays as "tree huggers") worshipped ancient Celtic gods in isolated sections of the forests or near lakes or rivers. Trees were held sacred, particularly the oak tree which they identified with a high god and which bore their cherished mistletoe; in fact, the term "Druid" is Gaelic for "knowing the oak tree." The Druids were superior physicians and revered trees and plants for their healing properties and diligently studied herbal medicine. The Druids were the wise ones of Celtic society and studied moral philosophy, nature and religion. They conducted Celtic religious ceremonies and dictated moral, ethical and spiritual standards of the Celts. They were also extraordinary magicians who studied dream interpretation, astronomy and calendar and omens. One Roman historian wrote that Druids "are uplifted by searchings into things most secret and sublime."The Druids were active participants in animal and human sacrifice and had no qualm about burning victims alive, drowning them, spearing them with stakes or using some other violent method of killing. Theorized suggests that sacrifice was acceptable to the Druids because they believed souls to be immortal.The Romans thought the Druids to be repulsive, and around 60 A.D., they killed all of the Druids and destroyed their ritual grounds.Throughout the centuries, Druidism has experienced several periods of revival and, like many ancient pagan religions, underwent a revival in the 1960s. The Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA) and a splinter group, the New Reformed Druids of North America (NRDNA), have modified ancient Druidic practices and rituals to accommodate modern society (no blood sacrifices). With such little information available about the ancient Druids, contemporary Druids are sometimes assumed to be offshoots of present neo-pagan religions, specifically the Celtic-inspired Faery religion.Order of the Solar Temple"We are in the reign of fire," Luc Jouret told a Swiss radio station in 1987, "Everything is being consumed." In 1994 Jouret's followers began an international string of murders and suicides, frequently ending in mass infernos, that would end with over 70 deaths - including Jouret's. His group, The Order of the Solar Temple, lived on the fringes of organized religion, but his followers included mayors and millionaires. Among these, it is rumored, was Grace Kelly.Jouret, a mystic born in the Belgian Congo, believed himself in a previous life to be a member of the semi-mythical 14th century Christian group the Knights Templar. He preached a weird but seemingly harmless mixture of homeopathy, New Age mysticism and financial theory. But in his spare time he was building a following that numbered 500, some of whom donated more than $1 million to the group. Jouret encouraged his followers to stockpile weapons and himself was convicted of smuggling silencers into Canada. Jouret declared his daughter to be a "cosmic child," conceived without sex, and named her Emmanuelle after one of the Biblical names for Jesus. When two of his followers named their own son Emmanuel, Jouret declared the child to be the Antichrist and had the parents murdered. The boy was found with a stake through his heart. Jouret preached that the world was nearing its end through a great ecological crisis. His followers could find eternal salvation through self-immolation. After death, they would awaken on the planet Sirius, which would be paradise.In October of 1994, 53 members of the Order of the Solar Temple died in a series of suicide pacts at a ski resort in Quebec and two villages in Switzerland. Some had not gone willingly. There were signs of struggle and many had died of gunshot wounds to their heads. Some had been stabbed. The bodies were cloaked in ceremonial robes and surrounded by empty champagne bottles, indications of a grim celebration. The buildings that housed the suicides were rigged to catch fire with a telephone call. They burned, and the bodies with them. Dental records later identified Jouret among the victims.A year later, 16 more members of the Order of the Solar Temple committed suicide in a remote French Alpine village. On March 26, 1997, a house caught fire in St. Casimir, a village 50 miles west of Quebec City. Investigators found four burned bodies seated cross-legged in an upstairs bedroom and a fifth body on a sofa. The last body was an older woman with a bag over her head, leading police to believe she was murdered. Police also discovered three teenagers in a nearby shed. The teenagers explained that their parents were members of the Order of the Solar Temple and had drugged them, intending to include them in the suicide without their knowledge. However, an explosive device failed. The teenagers awoke and discovered their parents' plans. The family discussed the matter at length and finally the parents allowed their children to remain behind.As we near the end of the millennium, religious conviction grows increasingly fervent and, in some cases, increasingly violent. It is with this in mind that we include the story of the Order of the Solar Temple as a cautionary tale. Faith, the backbone of religion, can turn deadly. As Jouret told his followers, "Liberation is not where human beings think it is. Death can represent an essential state of life."RosicrucianismRosicrucianism is not a religion; it is a religious order, a mystic, largely Christian organization. However no matter what religion you are, you may join a Rosicrucian order and membership does not require any conversion. Some Christian groups have criticized the Rosicrucians, calling them cultists - most likely because Rosicrucians believe that all religions are equal. They draw beliefs and practices from many, and their practices are metaphysical or considered magical.The roots of the word "Rosicrucian" are the Latin "rosae," meaning rose (which is a symbol of secrecy), and "crux," meaning cross; thus, one common symbol of Rosicrucianism is a cross superimposed with the red rose of Venus.Often associated with Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism relies heavily on magics and is the mother of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Rosicrucianism can be officially traced to the 12th and 13th centuries, but members of the organization claim that private records prove it to be much older. Rosicrucianism was said to have been founded by a German named Christian Rosenkreutz, but he is now considered merely a representational mythical figure whose name means "a Christian of the Rosy Cross."Rosicrucianism draws heavily from Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and pagan religions. Its followers have long been noted for their ability to heal, their concern for keeping balance in the world and their practice of alchemy. Rosicrucian orders teach esoteric methods of using innate psychic and spiritual parts of the brain to effect change in the world - think metaphysics, creative visualization and astral travel. A basic tenet of Rosicrucianism is that "all manifestation comes from energy and that for all physical manifestation a triangle of energies is needed."Rosicrucians subscribe to the principles of karma and reincarnation. They believe that people can alter the way they live and behave and free themselves from the reigns of karma and teach that reincarnation is "a fact of existence" and that our souls weather many incarnations on the path to perfection.Rosicrucian orders continue to survive throughout the world. One of the oldest and most noted is the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC), founded in 1915 and still thriving with chapters all over the world.The Radical Faery FellowshipThe Radical Faery Fellowship is perhaps the most diverse and decentralized religion listed here. Radical Faeries are (as best can be summarized) gay men with an interest in spirituality and rural life. The spirituality of the Radical Faery Fellowship is extraordinarily varied: Some might believe in nothing more unusual than their own form of Christianity, while others blend Native American spiritual beliefs, European paganism and various indigenous religions to create hybrids unlike anything else. Despite this wide range of belief, a common emphasis on tolerance and acceptance allows each Radical Faery to be included in the broader circle of supporters.The Radical Faery movement was started in the late '70s by Harry Hay, one of the United State's first gay rights activists and founder of the Mattachine Society. The first gathering of Radical Faeries happened in 1978 in Arizona. Since then the loose network of Faeries has created gatherings across the country as well as rural retreats where some Faeries live on a permanent basis.One of the key tenets of the Radical Faery identity is a resistance to definition. For every Faery that believes the movement to be deeply spiritual, there is another that sees it as primarily social and another who focuses on the political aspect. Faeries often describe themselves as "misfits" or "fringe elements." In many ways the Radical Faery Fellowship is best understood as a loose milieu that happens to have a name with capital letters.Specific Radical Faery practices can also be hard to identify. Many Faery gatherings center on a circle, where each Faery has an equal say in determining the direction and function of the assembly. Many circles include some rudimentary form of recognition, like a talking stick that is passed from one person to another to indicate who has the floor. Outside of the common practice of the circle however, Radical Faery gatherings can be autonomous zones where anything can happen.Some Radical Faeries consider themselves sexual ambassadors of a sort, spreading physical love in the manner of ancient temple prostitutes. Other Faeries have an explicitly political agenda, participating in demonstrations, Kiss-Ins and occupations of various parts of straight society. Radical Faeries are often recognizable by their somewhat outlandish costumes that are so varied as to defy description. Often they include gaudy jewelry, loud patterns and funny hats and sunglasses.The best continuing resource for Radical Faery information is the magazine RFD (typically for Faery-related material, the acronym has no set meaning and changes with each issue.) RFD is available in many gay bookstores and by subscription from: RFD-W, P.O. Box 68, Liberty, TN 37095The Hermetic Order of the Golden DawnThe Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is another secret society, founded in London in 1877 by three members of a Rosicrucian society open only to Master Masons. Disenchanted, they broke from the society and supposedly discovered the Cipher Manuscripts, the foundation of the Order of the Golden Dawn. This history is debatable, though, as most scholars believe these papers were forged and that the Order of the Golden Dawn came into existence based upon lies and fraud.At its height, the Order of the Golden Dawn held the most vast magical knowledge and the most revered magicians of the Western world. Its philosophies are blatantly similar to those of Rosicrucianism, and near-universally the Golden Dawn is understood as a revival of the Rosicrucian movement. Whereas Rosicruicianism could be considered "occult practice lite," the Golden Dawn's essential magics were rooted in Egyptian and Kabalistic practices and also borrowed from the grand grimoire The Key of Solomon, Abra-Melin magic and Enochian magic - all considered high, ceremonial magics. The Golden Dawn's texts incorporate ideas from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Chaldean Oracles, William Blake's Prophetic Books and Christianity - Jesus was referred to as the "Master of Masters," which closely resembles the Rosicrucians' reference to him.Members of the Golden Dawn were required to speak the Enochian language and to be well-versed in alchemy, geomancy, scrying, astral projection and travel, astrology and Tarot. Ritual, sigils and talismans were also main constituents of the order. Modern witchcraft is a melting pot of the magical elements of the Golden Dawn, Rosicrucian orders and freemason rituals.The Order of the Golden Dawn uses an elaborate hierarchic system of 10 degrees, which correspond to the Kabbalist sephiroth of the Tree of Life. An 11th degree was established for neophytes - freshly initiated into the order. The sephiroth of the Tree of Life are essences of angels and men representing divine aspects. Each sephiroth is a level of attainment of knowledge, as are the levels of the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn's degrees are divided into orders - Outer, Second and Third. The Third and highest order is that of the Secret Chiefs, which are entities existing on the planes of the astral realm. A few members of the Golden Dawn claimed that the Secret Chiefs had initiated them into the Third Order, but many claim that human initiation into this order is not possible.Aleister Crowley is the most notorious member of the Golden Dawn, and was said to be an excellent magician. However, Crowley broke from the Golden Dawn, allegedly to pursue the darker arts, and formed Astrum Argentum (the Silver Star) in Italy. Crowley's sect was based upon the system of the Golden Dawn and incorporated elements of Oriental occult practices and sex magic.The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn has recently undergone a revival of its own, and chapters currently exist worldwide.SanteriaThe term Santeria is actually a misnomer. The religion of the orishas, sometimes known as La Regla Lucumi, was called Santeria by the Spanish. The misnaming occurred because the orishas' worshippers, who were slaves in Cuba, were forced to hide their religion from their masters by devising a system of correspondences by which they could worship their gods in the form of Catholic saints. The Spanish derisively applied the term Santeria as a means of noting that the slaves were ignoring the divinity of Jesus Christ in deference to the less holy saints. Many of the slaves who were brought to the New World were adherents of the Yoruba religion who came from what is now present-day Nigeria. Despite their displacement from their homeland, they brought their religion with them. Unfortunately, their Spanish masters insisted that the only religion they could practice was Roman Catholicism. Thus the slaves transformed their pantheon of seven orishas into seven Catholic saints. Through this slight-of-hand, the slaves were able to practice their religion, and continue their culture, despite the oppression of slavery.Over the last century, immigration to the United States from Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean has once again displaced the religion of the orishas. Today there are as many as two million adherents of the orishas, many of them in the United States Other branches of the religion are present in Mexico and Hispaniola.The beliefs and practices of those who follow La Regla Lucumi are not always accessible to people outside the faith. Generally, ceremonies include an invocation of Olorun, the one God who rules over the orishas but does not have direct contact with the world. Then a specific orisha will be invoked, depending on the purpose of the ceremony. A ceremonial drum marks off different segments of the service and, as the beat changes, the priests and priestesses may become possessed by an orisha.La Regla Lucumi has run afoul of the law on several occasions in the past 20 years. At the heart of the conflict is the practice of animal sacrifice. Despite the fact that animals sacrificed in rituals are killed quickly and are often eaten afterwards, some Christians and animal rights groups have attacked the practice as cruel and sought the government's help in banning it. After the Supreme Court decided in 1993 that laws designed to prevent the religious sacrifice of animals were unconstitutional, the challenges to it have disintegrated.ZoroastrianismZoroastrianism is the religion of the prophet Zarathushtra (which was transliterated as Zoroaster by the Greeks). The historical dates of Zarathushtra are unclear. Some commentators put his life as being in the 8th century B.C.E, while others place him as much as 600 years earlier. Zarathushtra was responsible for the Gathas, 17 hymns he composed, many of which were directly addressed to his god, Ahura-Mazda. The Gathas form the basis of Zoroastrianism, although the collection of ancient Zoroastrian scripture (the Avesta) also includes prayers, ceremonial rites and some purity lawsZoroastrianism is monotheistic. Ahura-Mazda is the supreme being, the creator of humanity and everything good. Ahriman, an evil being who is responsible for everything evil in the world, opposes him. Zoroastrians wait for a messiah called the Saoshyant, whose coming will herald the final battle between good and evil, where evil will be destroyed and immortality will be granted to all people, living and dead.Zoroastrianism is firmly rooted in the ethnicity of its adherents. The religion began in ancient Persia among the people known as Aryans. Modern Zoroastrians trace their lineage directly to these ancient Persians. Since they believe that Ahura-Mazda has placed each person in the correct religion at their birth, Zoroastrians have a strong aversion to intermarriage. Once a dominant world religion (during the period when the Persian Empire was a force to be reckoned with), Zoroastrianism has suffered a decline in popularity. Estimates as to the number of practicing Zoroastrians vary, but the number is almost certainly less than 200,000 worldwide. Zoroastrians are concentrated in India, where approximately 100,000 reside, and Iran, where the number is closer to 12,000. There are around 5,000 Zoroastrians in the United States.One practice that sets Zoroastrians apart from most other faiths is their method for disposing of dead bodies. Believing that burial and cremation pollute Ahura-Mazda's creation, Zoroastrians favor enclosing the dead in a sort of open stone cylinder where the corpse can be devoured by scavenger animals.

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