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Some New Bedford residents were surprised to see a quirky new addition to the city’s holiday display in Clasky Common Park the morning of Dec. 11.
Where once stood a Frosty the Snowman ice fishing shack, a colorful Baphomet — a gnostic deity recognized by pagans and occultists — was painted on plywood looking over the wooden snowmen skating in front of it. The Baphomet was removed by the end of the day. According to the City of New Bedford, city workers took it down.
“During the past week, an unknown person or persons breached protective fencing installed around a municipal holiday display in Clasky Common Park and left behind the item in question,” a spokesperson from New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell’s Office said in a statement.
“City workers regularly remove items that private parties sometimes attempt to place on public property. The item was therefore removed by city workers when discovered. As there was no damage to municipal property, the City considers the matter addressed.”
But despite the Baphomet’s short tenure, it made a big splash online, sparking conversations between neighbors about what the icon means, the meaning of Christmas, and representing all religions and cultures during the holiday season.
According to the artist behind the Baphomet, that was exactly what they were hoping to achieve.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Baphomet is a gnostic deity symbolizing duality that is often recognized by pagans, but is also widely used by occultists.
Baphomet as an image is a “Sabbatic Goat” — a human, meant to be both man and woman, with the head and feet of a goat. It is usually adorned with esoteric symbols such as a pentagram on its forehead, and has one hand pointing up while the other points down. This symbolizes the phrase “As above, so below,” which means “on Earth, as in heaven.”
The first known mention of Baphomet was in a letter sent during the First Crusade, the Encyclopedia said. Some scholars believe the name originated as a reference to Muhammad, or “Mahomet,” the founder of Islam.
Baphomet became better known around the world when members of the Knights Templar were accused of worshipping it in the early 1300s, the encyclopedia said. The Freemasons were also accused of worshipping it in the 1800s, but the accusation turned out to be false.
Baphomet has long been used as a sigil for the LaVeyan Church of Satan, a religious group that doesn’t actually believe in or worship Satan, but sees him as a positive figure representing rejection of many conservative Christian values and beliefs.
It is also used as the primary symbol for the Satanic Temple, which is a religious nontheistic group that promotes social justice, empathy, and separation of church and state.
Boston.com spoke to the artist who created the art display, who goes by Cheech. Cheech said they had been planning the installation for a few weeks before they put the Baphomet up.
“It wasn’t like this scary, black figure or anything. It was actually very colorful, and I thought it fit in well with the theme of Christmas,” they said.
At 3:30 a.m. the morning of Dec. 11, Cheech drove from their home to Clasky Common and placed the Baphomet beside the holiday display.
Cheech said the goal of the art installation was to start a conversation about how Baphomet and the meaning behind the deity relate to Christmas.
“Baphomet is not satanic. Baphomet is an imaginary deity of balance. It’s neither male nor female. It’s both. It’s neither man nor animal. It’s both. The whole idea of Baphomet is to be in balance with nature and humankind,” they said.
The artist said the intent was to “strike a chord about the true meaning of Christmas,” which they described as harmony, balance, and peace. “In my opinion, it fits in with Christmas.”
Cheech said they also wanted to remind people of the pagan roots of many Christmas traditions, and the importance of including all midwinter celebrations in holiday festivities.
“Every center of town has a major display, or the churches have a major display, and every year somebody steals that baby Jesus and there’s outrage in the community,” they said. “…I thought this was a far more constructive and positive way to start a conversation about Christmas.”
Lucky Cabral, owner of Sanctum Folklorica, an apothecary and witch shop in New Bedford, shared a picture of the Baphomet in a public New Bedford community Facebook group, and the post quickly got hundreds of comments.
“I wasn’t so happy about it in a rebel sense that a lot of people are. I was happy about exactly what Baphomet stands for, and that’s the balance in all things,” she said.
“And for me, when I leave the house this time of year, what do you see? Christmas, in every Christmas form there is. So I was like, ‘Hey, somebody’s representing.’ I thought that that was a statement of equality.”
The majority of the comments on Cabral’s post were positive. “This is rad! All beliefs should be represented during the holiday season!” one commenter wrote. “Hey, support all religions! Not just yours! This is awesome,” wrote another.
But not everyone was happy to see the Baphomet.
“I encourage all to worship and honor those they please but…this is a children’s display and that dude is scary as f…!” one commenter wrote. “It’s a demon in my eyes and when I bring my granddaughter I’ll teach her how evil it is and the people who worship it like they do to Christianity,” wrote another.
Even so, Cabral said she thought the discussion that resulted from those comments was ultimately a positive outcome.
“It opened up a dialog. It was a great little platform for everybody to air their thoughts on. And there was a lot of informative comments about various holidays,” she said.
Cheech said they wished the Baphomet had stayed up for longer, but that they weren’t surprised it was taken down so quickly.
“I always find that the best art is not permissible, and the best art has people arguing about what they think,” they said.
But Cabral and Cheech said Baphomet’s removal has inspired New Bedford artists to begin discussing a future art display that includes symbols from a variety of cultures, including Christian, Jewish, pagan, Hindu, and indigenous.
Until then, Cabral is inviting locals to learn more about pagan midwinter traditions at her shop on Dec. 21 when she will be hosting a visit from Luna the Yule goat.
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