[review] The Urban Primitive by Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartzstein

urban-primitive-kaldera-schwartzsteinTitle: The Urban Primitive: Paganism in the Concrete Jungle

Authorship: Raven Kaldera & Tanin Schwartzstein
Publisher: Llewellyn International
Year Published: 2002, First Edition
ISBN: 0738702595

I first want to say that I scrapped my first draft of this review because, as odd as this may sound, I thought it was unintentionally mean, well beyond anything this book, which is full of problems, deserves. I also got really self-conscious that some might interpret it as a personal attack against one of its authors, Raven Kaldera, who I honestly want to like (he’s one of the few people amongst the FTM spectrum on FetLife who is seriously realistic about TS/TG issues, even if some of the things he’s written for the public about the TS/TG community and his own transition may seem problematic, especially out of context or if one is making a habit of projecting), and so I really wanted to like one of the few books published (only three, ever, that I’m aware of) about urban pagan and polytheist spirituality —as odd as I find it that some-one who proudly runs a rural homestead would get involved in a book about urban spirituality, I was optimistic, at first, and still believe that even the most awful parts were included with the best intentions.

Tanin Schwartzstein’s introduction is wonderful and very welcoming to those whose spirituality is urban-centred —dare I say, I even saw bits of my own experiences in the recollection and lamentation of a pagan community that dismisses the city as “cold” and spiritually “dead”, especially as one whose experiences are of anything but. I’m also convinced that she’s responsible for some of the best parts of the book that follows (though I assign equal blame for the worst parts, cos if either of them knew better, one of them should have caught it and revised).

I love that this book is written for those with limited income in mind, and offers detailed suggestions on the arts of dumpster diving, thrift store combing, and frugal resources that are not only kind to one’s wallet, but also the environment. There are several helpful lists in this book for herbs, incenses, stones, even colours, and their uses in different purposes. One of the best parts is even an entire chapter dedicated to common plants found in most cities in North America, and their purposes and meanings. Another list is even specifically for suggestions on budget-minded substitutions for scented oils, and suggestions on budget-conscious or scavenged items to use in rituals, like a piece of broken glass for rituals that need a blade and you don’t have a blade, or using stumps of candles rather than tea lights in travel kits for altars or shrines. Let me tell you, after years of looking through “pagan 101” books in the mid-1990s that made it seem like one needs a middle-class income to even start out as a Pop Wicca nub, it’s refreshing to see that, barely more than a year into the Twenty-First Century, there was finally a book that made it indisputably clear that ritual tools could be scavenged or otherwise obtained with little or no expense, and one needn’t be financially comfortable to practise pagan religions —sure, nothing beats what the ritual recommends, nobody is arguing that, but if you think burning herbs is “too expensive”, it’s really only cos you don’t know enough about where you live, and this book offers an adequate primer for that knowledge.

It’s also nice that this book is written for not just those who thrive in cities, but for those who live in the city out of necessity. I may not personally understand the appeal of rural life, but I understand the necessity on a fundamental level, and I at least understand that, for some reason barbaros to myself, there are those who prefer a pastoral lifestyle and may only be living in the city’s walls for the work, or school, or family obligations, so adequate coping mechanisms seem like a fair inclusion.

On the other hand, most of the lists are too similar to other lists I’ve seen in “Pop Wicca 101” sorts of books. While it’s nice that Kaldera has added bits to this book to make it seem useful to those whose spirituality is rural-centred but who live in urban lands due to necessity, a lot of this really does come off as a bias, making urban spirituality seem dangerous to the soul, and the city an inferior place to live; it’s really hard to get through a chapter without somehow getting a potentially subtle or downright blatant guilt-trip for living in the city, or some kind of nonsense “warning” about dangers only vaguely alluded to, with practically nothing to back up most claims about the alleged physical risks (aside from crime rates, which is easily searchable on-line) and some of the more obvious pollution risks, and let me tell you, not even the developed countryside is without its pollution and risks to the environment —do a search on The Dust Bowl, kids, it wasn’t a gridiron game, and over eighty years later, it’s still affecting the central United States. While the introduction is wonderful, even describing experiences similar to my own, the book that follows it flip-flops between celebrating the Urban Divine and blaming all cities everywhere for everything wrong with the world.

This book also suffers from its constant use of vague claims, and almost never giving much, if anything, in the way of specifics to make for ease of fact-checking. The index is present, but not quite as comprehensive as I usually hope for a book of this length, and a proper bibliography of sources is practically nonexistent, so aside from the rare mention of other books and references in the text, there’s no real way to check whatever sources may have been utilised. Sorry, kids, but a “Recommended Reading” list (largely of books from the same publisher —curious, non?) is not the same as a Bibliography. Some quotes also seem like they might have been taken from an e-mail list or Usenet group or something, something I’ve discerned from the fact that the quoted person is unsearchable in a pagan context, and there’s a mention of an Internet group in the book acknowledgements, so confirming the backgrounds of the people quoted isn’t easy, sometimes even impossible —sometimes, that’s important, but to be fair, gven the context of many quotes in the book that fall in this potential category, it’s really not necessary. When it is necessary, on the other hand it’s something that really bothers me, and appears to be a trait of Llewellyn books that seems far too common, contributing to the negative reputation of the publisher amongst religious reconstructionists and academic pagans. And speaking of, I had hoped, knowing Kaldera’s background and that he’s also collaborated with Kenaz Filan, who I completely respect, that this wouldn’t be much of a problem, but I guess that’s what I get for hoping. That said, one of the best and most quoted people in the book is credited as “Beth Harper, Nashville witch”; I was incredibly disappointed to find her practically impossible to find on the Internet.

And this book makes a lot of really dumb factual errors that could have been avoided with a modicum of research. The one that really stands out for me, to the point that it just seems like a prime example of “making shit up in hopes of sounding smart” is conflating the Horai (Goddesses of time and seasons) and the Khorea (or “Hora”; a group of traditional circular dances from the Mediterranean and Near East) and attempting to link both to “sacred [prostitution]” (they use the word “harlots”), and explaining that it’s an etymology of “whore” and thus strip tease and erotic dance, as a profession, is directly descended from goddess worship (Chapter 5, page 50). Trying to decide where to begin on how much is wrong with that little “etymology lesson” kind of gives me a headache, because there is just so much wrong with it. Just to give you a taste of how wrong that claim is, there is no clear or even muddy etymological link between the Horai, or even Khorea, and “whore” —the word “whore” is descended from the Old Norse hora, meaning “adulteress”; considering that Kaldera is best known amongst pagan circles for his “Northern tradition”, I’m just floored at the fact that his understanding of his traditions’ languages is so sparse that he either didn’t catch that preposterous fallacy or, may the gods forbid, he desired to include it.

Of course, whether some Hellenists utilising religious reconstruction care to admit it or not, not only was there magic practised in ancient Hellas, but a lot of the “spells” and other rituals mentioned in this book bare a similarity to ancient Hellenic practises that are somehow “not magic” by the circular logic employed by some Hellenic circles, and can be easily adjusted to fit the standard ritual script of Hellenic practise. In the chapter on Protection Spells, the recommendation of drawing eyes, with oil, on windows and over the threshold of doors, even on the stairs, is not a far cry from the ancient Greeks putting apotropaic eyes on drinking vessels and heads of Gorgons at the threshold, this is just a modern, and argueably stealth adaptation of an ancient practise. Granted, you really need a good background in Hellenic practises to catch that sort of thing, but if this is your first time hearing of such a thing, don’t take my word for it, go check out apotropaic eyes in ancient Greece, and it’s clear that this simple little protection ritual is adaptable to Hellenic practises.

One of the complaints about this book that I see a lot from people on Amazon is the “Urban Triple Deities”. Now, obviously, I don’t acknowledge these “deities” in my practise, and I am sort of sceptical that something so basic as what’s described here is even a whole deity, and honestly, I really hate the illustrations for these six epithets, but who’s to say that these aspects don’t exist in existing deities? Knowing that Kaldera is a polytheist, I’m sure there’s intention that these simplistic figures can be aspects of existing deities, and knowing that Schwartzstein describes her religion on Teh FarceBorg as simply “pagan spiritualist”, there’s room to regard these as complete deities, if one so chooses. I can easily see traits of Hestia in Squat, “goddess of Parking Spaces”, whether it be your car or your bed, Skor, the scavenger goddess, strikes me as an epithet of Demetre or possible Tykhe, and Skram, Who warns you away from potential dangers, is a clear face of Hekate; Slick, the silver-tongued, works as an aspect of Hermes (something the book even suggests), Screw seems a simplistic, Neizchean aspect of Dionysos, and Sarge seems a sort of superficial Zeus or perhaps Ares. I also don’t see how most of these aspects of deity are specifically urban; having gone to high school in a rural area, I can assure you, rural people are no stranger to needing spaces, needing motivation, an anonymous lay, being in danger (I’m sure “Skram” might’ve been just as useful in Laramie, Wyoming, which has a smaller population than Adrian, MI, the latter being indisputably rural), or even scavenging (hello? gleaning, anybody?), but if this is a device that can open some-one’s eyes to these aspects and relevance to the city, then awesome.

In the previous chapter, though, ancient deities are addressed. Again, I have mixed feelings about this. I understand the space constraints the authors were working with, and to their credit, they acknowledged that the deities mentioned were described in overly simplistic manners and further research is best. On the other hand, there is no shortage of statements made that even a casual, but genuine relationship with a deity could easily prove false. I’m sick of people assuming Apollon only digs classical music, and saying “[He’s] not interested in rock or rap or hip hop … [play] classical music, or He’ll frown” just after suggesting propitiating Him in a record store (Chapter 5, page 49), is more than a bit contradictory —seriously, people, if He’s the God of music, why limit music for Him to a single genre? In my experiences, Apollon really loves Nick Cave. I doubt that Thoth is simply “the Egyptian god of writing” (in fact, Wikipedia suggests I’m right about that). Zeus and Odin? Not the same deity. I really have to argue against the notion that Athene is the primary Hellenic goddess associated with science museums —not only is the name of the Moisai in the word “museum”, Ourania is specifically associated with astronomy, and Kleio’s domain of “history” can logically extend to natural history and evolutionary sciences. Saturn has nothing to do with “karma”, and I had to raise an eyebrow at the suggested association with the IRS —at the very least, an explanation of the logic employed would have been nifty.

One of the other problems with this book is the regular language that seems awfully Americentric, as if the whole world of Llewellyn Worldwide begins and ends with the United States. Not only is this book available at regionally domestic pricing in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, my own copy came from a UK seller via eBay (but it’s also a US copy), and Schwartzstein’s FaceBook profile states that it’s been translated into Russian. I wonder how well the suggestion that those who live along “the West Coast” fault line should worship Poseidon as a bringer of earthquakes translates to readers from Moscow? Or in Australia, where it’s the North Coast that gets more earthquakes?

Why can't we see his hands?  Gods above, why can't we see Morrissey's hands??

Why can’t we see his hands? Gods above, why can’t we see Morrissey’s hands??

What’s so wrong with simply saying “anyone in a city near a fault line should supplicate Poseidon”, especially considering that those along the North American West Coast tend to get a higher ratio of reminders of their fault line than most other people? Why force the rest of the Worldwide readers to have to mentally adjust what they’re reading? In the immortal words of a Double-Double fucker named Steve1, “America is not the world”.

Continue reading



It’s been a while since I’ve done a painting for the theoi — perhaps tellingly, my last one is Narkissos, left unfinished after my surgery in 2008 went awry.

I’ve been feeling the push to paint again quite recently, and the image I’m getting is for Britannia, and will most likely be in watercolours — indeed, one of the main things holding me back this last week is the search for where I unpacked my watercolours to.

“But Ruadhán!” you might wish to interject with, “That’s not a Hellenic goddess!”

Well, I suppose in the strictest sense, you’d be correct, but my reasons include ancestor-worship (definitely an ancient Hellenic practise) and the name “Britain” ultimately comes from Hellenic etymology. Of course, I’m only really justifying myself in public because I’m sure my #1 fan would love nothing more than to use this and the forthcoming painting as “evidence” that I’m somehow “not practising Hellenic religion/reconstruction” anymore, possibly ever (as he’s done this to others in the past, for lesser reasons) — which is hilarity-on-a-stick, true, but best to make such lunacy apparent from the start, den eínai?

My envisioning of Britannia is based part in the traditional Roman and part in the Mod subculture, and may even seem reminiscent of a certain scene from Derek Jarman’s Jubilee — and I’m sure at this point, you probably have the same mental image I do, especially if you’re familiar with my painting style.

One thing that I regret not posting about this year is my ritual and prayer for my re-envisioning of Shrove Tuesday as Pancake Feast of Britannia and St. Patrick’s Day as Bacon & Cabbage Feast of Hibernia. I intend to remedy this, but at a more seasonally-appropriate future time.

So, I was dicking around on Theoi.com a couple days ago….

…and I entered in “Boeotia” in the search engine on there. First time I’d done that, actually. Really weird how I’ve used that site as a resource for YEARS and been gravitating further and further into Boeotian-specific religion, and I’d never done that before. Now, I’m putting this here rather than in Of Thespiae because my search basically proved me right about something else I’d posted here seemingly ages ago:

My babble about the nymphai poleis isn’t that far off-base.

It seems most, if not all, Boeotian cities are named for a nymphe. Thespiae (now Thespis) is named for Thespia. Thebes named for Thebe. And on and on. You know what this means? It means I’m right — and not just right, technically right — the best kind of “right” there is.

I admit, I feel a little stupid now — this would seem like a pretty remedial thing to learn, but there you go. It’s things like this, the “confirmed personal gnosis”, that lead me to believe that Eros has a master plan in this, somehow.

Urban Hellenistai & Food Sacrifices

A question I see coming up frequently enough on Hellenic lists concerns food sacrifices. Many of the responses are impractical for urban dwellers, but some are actually very practical.

First off, let me state that in Hellenic practises, food sacrifices are a tradition that goes back to ancient worship. In ancient times, there were two kinds of food sacrifices: offering of a small portion or whole serving of food to non-Cthonic deities; and the offering of the whole of the servings to the Cthonic deities, sometimes with the adage “What the Underworld receives is [Theirs] — They Below receive all in full, because it is NOT our time and we are not ready to sup at Their table just yet.” Many food offerings were burned in the hearth of the home, or the hearth of the polis during large community fests and rituals, some weren’t. Some temples had designated areas for perishable (food) and non-perishable offerings, and sometimes when the perishables would stack up, they would be carted away to a separate area just outside the city — sort of a “landfil” to the Theoi.

Some urban homes still have working fireplaces, though those are less common, these days. If you live in a house or apartment that has a working fireplace, by all means, feel free to burn your offerings safely there. All that’s required is that you know how to operate your fireplace safely.

If you have a backyard, many urban-dwellers these days have a small designated “composting” area where food-waste is casually dumped and biodegredation is assisted with the help of red worms. This option is essentially keeping with the ancient temple practise, only on a smaller scale for your house. If you have a backyard and you know another Hellenist who does not, you can also feel free to invite them to use your “Divine composting heap” for food sacrifices; they can accumulate food offerings in a large snap-locking container (Rubbermaid or Tupperware are familiar brands) that they can keep in the fridge or under the sink. This will also help in aiding the development of an Hellenic community in your area, and community was very important in ancient practises, and is something that can be maintained today, with people who wish to cultivate it. Also keep in mind that, if you rent your house rather than own it, composting may be something restricted by your landlord, so be sure to read your lease or call them, first.

If you’re all alone, or neither you nor anyone else in your local Hellenic community can volunteer a backyard compost, another idea is to compost indoors. Some places sell composting containers for people in apartments or houses with small backyards, but anything conceivably large enough, like a 30lb bucket the previously held kitty-litter, can work. You’ll need both a container of appropriate sie, a few red composting worms, and (optionally to some, required to others) a base of potting soil. If you garden indoors or out, the resultant compost can be used for that — or if you don’t do that, this can get you started — after all, there is absolutely no shortage of plant-life sacred to the Theoi, and much of it can be grown indoors.

Other options I’ve seen from others include:

  • Have a separate trash receptacle for food sacrifices. I don’t like this, but I can understand it’s practicality for one who doesn’t have the time, patience, or skills for indoor gardening.
  • If you have a gas cooker, but no fireplace, burn your sacrifice under the broiler. I’ve done this on rare occasion. It can take forever, and if you’re not careful, it may set off your smoke-alarms. If you have non-Hellenic room-mates, be sure to make sure to use basic courtesies before burning a sacrifice under a communal broiler.
  • Some suggest eating it oneself, citing references to Egyptian priests doing such. This may not be appropriate if you do not wish to incorporate Kemetic worship or practises into your own.
  • Some state that they just leave the food sacrifices outside, bury it, or place it in trees. This may not be practical or even possible for many urban-dwellers. It may also be grounds for eviction in some apartment complexes.
  • Some have even suggested placing a serving of a meal in a plain paper lunch sack and leaving it at a city crossroads for Hekate or some One else. Others have suggested giving the meal to a homeless person as an offering to her.

If you have any other suggestions, please feel free to comment with them.

Or if you have a funny story about leaving or otherwise making a food sacrifice to the Theoi, then by all means, let me know! I’m still fighting off this awful cold for another day, so maybe a laugh will help that out.

Praise to Hermes

So, my room-mate was driving me to an appointment in Detroit earlier when, due to the snow and slush on the roads, we ended up spinning out on I-94 whilst trying to make a turn. The car, a silver Saturn Ion, did a complete 180° turn and ended up with the passenger-side tires over the edge of the asphalt and the whole car facing the opposite direction of traffic.

First thing out of my mouth “well, that could have been a whole lot worse” and then I immediately light a cigarette.

Less than a minute passes and in that short amount of time, my room-mate, who I shall call Scott (cos that’s his name) for the sake of simplicity, and I assess the situation and decide that he, being in the range of six-and-a-half feet tall and built like a cross between The Undertaker of WWF fame and a farmhand (compared to my own diminutive 5’2″ and being built like Bilbo Baggins), shall push the car while I move over to the driver’s seat, put the car in Neutral, and steer it back onto the road. After this minute-range of time passes, a car of two people, a young man and his lady friend, pull over to see what they can do to help. Another minute, at most, passes, and another car, this time a largeish SUV containing another young man, this one with a chain and a towing hook, stops to help out.

I then toss a couple of coins pulled out indiscriminately from my change purse, and toss then into the snow, under the car, as a minor offering to Hermes as thanks for this help, and then whisper a short prayer of praise, as I steer the car being towed out. Thankfully, there is nobody oncoming by the time we get out, so we’re able to turn the car back around the proper way, and make our way back onto the surface streets — where it’s discovered that we only made it as far as Romulus, Michigan, before I call my surgeon’s office to reschedule. (Thankfully, his receptionist was very nice about it and even asked to make sure that we were OK.)

And now, if nobody minds, I’m off to go burn some incense.

Kala Noumenia!

Blog Mission for 2009

I just read Blog Mission and Goals in the New Year on KALLISTI: An Apple in Pandemonium (probably my favourite Hellenismos blog, yes, even preferred over my own; add it to your blogroll if you haven’t, already) and figured that, in the midst of various New Year’s Resolutions for myself, it would be a good idea to make a similar post for this blog.

While I share many of Annyikha’s sentiments (especially the underlined portion of her post), my goal and mission for Urban Hellenistos is to be as unique a voice for Hellenismos as practical. I don’t want UH to basically regurgitate the sake dissections and commentaries of other Hellenismos and Hellenismos-related blogs. Blogs such as KALLISTI, Ramblings of a Mad Sannion [from a Graeco-Egyptian blogger], and others listed in my sidebar already provide content that I enjoy reading, so unless I have something wholly different to say about an item, I will trust my readers to go read other blogs and assume that I generally agree with what’s already been said perfectly well by somebody else in the English-language Hellenic blogosphere.

While UH (and Of Thespiae) is predominantly anecdotal and based on my personal practises and beliefs, I aim to maintain my focus on cities, urban life, and topics related to urban people and urban-focused paganism. One goal I hope to meet this year is to finally get around to reviews and critiques of a few books on my “Things to Read” list, and relate how their content applies to Hellenismos or at least could be applied to Hellenismos by people living in modern cities — after all, current census counts seem to be stating that more people (by ratio) are living in cities now than ever before, making the current (albeit, still currently small) attention paid to the topic of urban-based spirituality seem long-overdue. Who better to sing the praises of urban Hellenic spirituality than somebody who actually enjoys prefers living in cities? (Unlike certain authors of books on “urban paganism” who outright prefer rural living.) I will welcome attempts of those who feel they can do better than I can when speaking of urban-based spirituality; though I shall leave it up to the readers of this and other sources to determine who puts urban-based (and urban-biased) spirituality best; I have no interest in a “pagan blogger pissing contest”, but I do feel that, at this time, I can do the urban population of the Hellenismos community some degree of justice by saying what I can, in the best way that I can.

To meet this goal, I intend to at least touch on certain topics related to urban spirituality:

  • utilising the benefits of living in cities to best serve Hellenistai
  • make the hindrances of urban living work in favour of Hellenistai
  • further discuss the urban aspects of the Theoi, Daimones and Heroes of the Hellenic pantheon
  • stress the historical importance of urban life in ancient Hellas and making comparisons and contrasts with modern Hellenic practise

Nothing too lofty, you see, but goals I feel that, if and when made, can prove to be of further benefit to the Hellenismos community. After all, among the few things I have had a life-long love-affair with, I think that bringing together both urban living and the Hellenic religion is something that definitely seems to be working for me so far (and in the event that I may be proved wrong, may the Theoi give me the strength to acknowledge that I’ve been bested by another).

Messenger Bag

I was actually inspired to make this post after reading this post from the LJ community pimp_my_altarPimp My Altar. My messenger bag began life as, well, and ordinary messenger/Israeli paratrooper bag that I purchased at Harry’s Army Surplus before their Ann Arbor location went out-of-business (due largely to gentrification and the sudden raise in rent for businesses on that block):

Mine was purchased for under $10 on a 50% off clearance, and I also got a fishtail parka for just under $20, on a 75% off clearance, and an extra-tall “walking stick”-sized umbrella for about $10 even (the latter is no longer a usable umbrella, due in part to Chicago winds, and in part to living with three cats).

This is how mine looks today:

It wasn’t a huge task to transform the paratrooper symbol into a Caduceus, which has been historically used as a printer’s mark. Regardless, as a symbol of Hermes, it seems an entirely appropriate thing to paint onto a bag that I primarily use for carrying notebooks, my agenda, important papers, my chequebook (which has the simpler Caduceus [sans wings] painted on the front), and a few other things that I’m in the habit of carrying with me, including my lyrics book, sheet music, drawing pencils and sketch diary, mp3 player or Walkman, personal phone book, cigarette tin and lighter, and gum. It reminds me of one of my favourite quotes from Derek Jarman’s film Caravaggio: “It was through an act of theft that Mercury created the Arts.” I recall that quote not because of theft (though I am frequently reminded of how the push for gentrification has essentially robbed this poor town of its culture before it could truly come into its own, and how the closing of Harry’s and several other down-town stores really solidified Ann Arbor’s gentrification in my mind), but because of Hermes’ long-held associations with the Arts and how I carry in this bag my simplest means of creativity.

All the pin-back buttons on the bag (with the exception of “The Amino Acids – Warning: Tangy Reverb” one) are also one’s that I’ve created. I had a few more on there before I took these two photos just now, but they either fell off or were removed by me at some time or another. [Well, except for a Dionysos button that I’m pretty sure some kid on the Amtrak stole while I was in the on-train restroom; it’s one of those things that I just know, even though I couldn’t prove it. Of course, I didn’t even notice it was gone until I had already reached Chicago. There was just something about the way that kid kept looking at the button when he and his mother boarded the bus, kept looking at me after I came back from the restroom, and the fact that his mother was dead-asleep before and after I went to the restroom.]

Here’s a close-up (albeit, a dark one) of the buttons. I took it without flash to eliminate glare that would have made them unviewable:

left-to-right are: Top – Satyr & Nymphe (from a Roman mosaic), Narkissos (19thC CE illustration)
Bottom – Apollon & Muse, Hyakinthos & Zephyros, Apollon & laurel branch
(gone missing or out-of-commission: Dionysos, Hermes, Adonis, Eros, Caravaggio’s Narcissus, Hermaphroditos, Neokoroi flame, Hellenion flame)