Sunday, 13 April 2014

Open post to U.S. Pagans: Contribute to sociology - fill in the Pagan Census Revisited II !

Back in the 1990s, American sociologist of religion Helen A. Berger conducted a project which she termed the Pagan Census in a successful attempt to gain a far better understanding of the contemporary Pagan community's main demographic information. (For those of you particularly interested, her findings were published in 2003 by the University of South Carolina Press as Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States).

Then, from 2009-2010, Berger teamed up with the well-known scholar of new religious movements James R. Lewis to perform the Pagan Census Revisited, in the hope of observing how things had changed in the intervening decade. Now, Berger and Lewis have assembled together what they term the Pagan Census Revisited II, a series of 31 questions that they would like to ask practicing Pagans in the U.S. They would be grateful if anyone who does so happen to be a practicing Pagan in the States would fill out the confidential questionnaire, which can be done online at: If anyone reading this is indeed eligible, I'd really recommend taking part in this survey as it will give us all a far greater understanding and appreciation of the changing face of Paganism in the U.S. - and that's something of benefit to both the scholarly and Pagan communities.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Reviewing Senate House's "Gef the Talking Mongoose" Symposium

As I mentioned back in February, the Senate House library in Bloomsbury, central London, was holding an event titled "If you knew what I know, you'd know a hell of a lot!: A Symposium on Gef the Talking Mongoose" on Thursday 10 April (yesterday). For those unaware of this tale, it revolved around the claims of the Irving family, who lived in an isolated farmhouse near the hamlet of Dalby on the Isle of Man during the 1930s. They asserted that their house was haunted by a mongoose who had the ability to speak English, and who informed the family that his name was Gef and that he came from New Delhi. Unsurprisingly, the British press jumped on the story, and soon reporters were flooding to the island in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the elusive creature. Following in their wake were parapsychologists and psychic investigators, among them famous names like Harry Price and Hereward Carrington. No one ever actually found any substantiated proof that Gef had ever existed, but the story has lived on in folklore, and was one that I lapped up when told of it as a child. This pioneering and unique event had been organised by Senate House's research librarian Richard Espley and Christopher Josiffe, the latter of whom has spent much time investigating the Gef case and has published on it in such outlets as Fortean Times.

Arriving 20 or so minutes late due to an intensely annoying 90 minute train delay (all thanks to some vagabonds having torn the lead out of the railway track) I was just able to catch the tail end of Josiffe's well-illustrated introductory presentation in which he provided an outline of those mysterious events. From there, Robin Klarzynski opened what was described as "Panel 1" with an analysis of the acclaimed American beat poet W.S. Burroughs' interest in Gef and its relation to Burroughs' wider interest in animals as familiar spirits. As part of this, Klarzynski described his analysis of Gef's alleged comments using Burrough's cut-up technique; an artistically if not academically interesting approach.  Psychic researcher Alan Murdie of the Society for Psychical Research followed with a presentation in which he situated the Gef scenario within its context of broader British poltergeist activity. In particular he turned to the role of both animals and sexuality in poltergeist cases, ultimately suggesting that there might have been a problem of incest within the Irving family that resulted in the emotional turmoil from which Gef emerged. Although I admit to some scepticism (though not, I would hope, of the blind and unyielding variety) as to the genuine objective existence of poltergeists and other such "supernatural" phenomenon, it was very interesting to hear Murdie's take on the situation. The next paper was authored by Mark Bell and read in absentia by Espley; it looked at the interesting parallels that exist between the Gef haunting and the 19th century case of the Bell Witch in Tennessee.

After time for questions and a break for tea and cake, it was on to Panel 2, opened by Espley's own paper. In this he looked at Gef's relation to literacy and reading, using Mr. Irving's transcripts of what Gef allegedly said and did as a basis. He was followed by Craig Wallace, a PhD student at Queen's University Belfast, with an analysis of how the Greg case might have influenced two episodes of Nigel Kneale's 1976 BBC television series Beasts; Kneale's work seems to be attracting increasing academic interest - I recall it being discussed at last October's "Monstrous Antiquities: Archaeology and the Uncanny in Popular Culture" conference just around the corner at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. After another break, we were treated to a screening of Vanished! (1990), an arts film that dramatised the events of the Gef case. The acclaimed film makers, Brian Catling and Tony Grisoni, adopted an interesting "talking heads" perspective in which actors portraying each of the three key members of the Irving family discussed their own experiences with Gef. Although it might not necessarily have been an entirely accurate reflection of the events in question (as it of course had to allow for artistic licence), I certainly found it emotionally powerful and beautifully haunting; definitely worth a watch for anyone interested in the Dalby Spook.

Overall, I would certainly have liked to have seen the involvement of some historians and folklorists, whose perspectives I suspect have a great deal to offer on the mysterious case of Gef. However, I appreciate that there might not have been any historians or folklorists who put forward paper proposals, and thus the symposium's organisers can hardly be held accountable on this issue. I also find it a tad unnerving (although perhaps that is the wrong word) that every presenter was male; this, however, seems to be a general problem throughout most academic or otherwise scholarly symposiums and conferences, and again is not the fault of the organisers.
However, given that two of the three key members of the Irving family who featured in the Gef case were female, I think that a woman's perspective would be a vital contribution here. All in all however, it was certainly an enjoyable event and I hope that it inspires further research into not only the case of Gef the Talking Mongoose but also other "weird" and "paranormal" events in British history.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

An Interview with Dr. Jacqueline Simpson

Today here at Albion Calling, I am greatly honoured to have a scholar widely regarded as one of Britain's foremost folklorists as my interviewee, Dr. Jacqueline Simpson, currently Visiting Professor at the University of Chichester's Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy. A specialist in both the folklore of Iceland and her native England, Simpson has been active in the field since the 1950s, having published over fifteen books and many other papers in peer-reviewed journals over that period. She currently serves as editor of FLS News, the newsletter of The Folklore Society, having formerly acted as the President of that eminent institution and the editor of its well-known journal, Folklore. We talk about the many things that she has accomplished over the years, and discuss everything from the witch-cult theory of Margaret Murray to her experiences with the eminent Anglo-Saxonist Hilda Ellis Davidson, and from the folklore of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels to the perils and pitfalls currently facing the field of folkloristics.

[EDW] Having been schooled at Sion Convent in Worthing, West Sussex, you went on to study English Literature and Medieval Icelandic at Bedford College, University of London. For many years you operated as an independent scholar, but returned to established academia in 2010, when you were appointed to the position of Visiting Professor at the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy at the University of Chichester in West Sussex. Can you tell us a bit more about this academic trajectory that you have taken ? Were you driven to become an academic and a scholar from an early age ?
[JS] There was a fairly ‘academic’ tradition in the Simpson family, where several generations of my forebears were vicars, doctors or schoolmasters, though none of them became dons. In my Belgian mother’s family there were barristers, and also (and more importantly for me) a deep interest in literature, classical music and art. At school I was good at my studies, and was particularly fond of English literature; it was simply taken for granted that I would try to get into university, and there was no need for me to feel ‘driven’ towards it. I did not consciously plan to become a scholar – I just wanted to go on reading and learning for as long as possible.
I say ‘try’ to get in, because in those days conditions for admittance were tough. There were far fewer universities then than now, and they accepted students not on school-leaving exams but on the basis of their own stringent entrance examinations, often with interviews too. I have seen it stated that only 5% of the population went to university then. It was particularly difficult for women, as almost all colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were for men only. On the other hand, money was no problem for us of the post-war generation; thanks to Labour Government policies, if you did get accepted, a Local Authority grant paid the fees.
And so I had three happy and hard-working years studying for a BA in London, and then two more years doing a thesis for an MA on a little-known Icelandic saga (the doctorate came much later, by the ‘body of published work’ route). My present status as Visiting Professor at Chichester came as a most unexpected and very gratifying surprise.

After the MA I could have applied for a university post, but decided not to, because of my mother’s frail health. So I settled in Worthing as a part-time teacher at my old school, and wrote a couple of academic articles based on parts of my MA thesis. Then came a stroke of luck: both the tutors who had supervised my MA research (Professors Peter Foote and Norman Garmonsway) were approached by publishers with requests to write books for a popular readership, which they were too busy to do, and both said, ‘No thanks, but I do know a young woman who might be interested.’ I most certainly was; hence
The Northmen Talk and Everyday Life in the Viking Age. From then on I went on to combine teaching with research and writing, while living at home to look after my mother.

[EDW]: For most of your career, you have been closely affiliated with Britain's foremost organisation for folkloristics, The Folklore Society, at various times serving as its Secretary, President (1993–96), and Editor of its peer-reviewed journal, Folklore (1979–93). You remain a regular at the Society's London lectures and conferences, sit on the group's committee, and serve as editor for Folklore Society News, while in 2008 the Society awarded you the Coote Lake Research Medal for your work. How did you get involved in this eminent organisation, and what do you see as its importance and its achievements?

[JS] My first contact with the Folklore Society was a by-product of my interest in Nordic mythology. I had become interested in the motif of severed heads that speak, and had read somewhere that there were instances of this in British folktales. I wrote to Dr Katharine Briggs asking for references, and she answered very fully and kindly, and advised me to join the FLS for the sake of its library. This was in 1962 or ’63. I soon realised that the study of folklore is a fascinating and important branch of cultural history in its own right, not a mere postscript to long-gone paganism.
Logo of The Folklore Society
I was elected on to the Society’s Council (now called Committee), and eventually, as you say, I served in several capacities. It has been a most valuable and enjoyable experience, and I have made many friends there.
To understand the importance of the Folklore Society one must realise that in English universities (unlike Ireland, Scotland and most European countries) folklore has not been accepted as an academic subject in its own right, with an entire department to itself. Most universities here, at most periods, have offered no folklore courses whatever; those that did (Leeds at one time, Sheffield at another) did so under the aegis of some more conventional department, and unfortunately were forced by financial pressures eventually to drop the courses. Currently, there is the new and vigorous Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy at the University of Chichester – may it live long and prosper!

The Folklore Society therefore played a vital role as a place where isolated folklorists, and scholars for whom folklore was a sideline to their official subjects, could meet, hear lectures, produce a journal, and – most importantly -- use the extensive library which the society built up. Our Late Victorian founders were ambitious in their ideas for collecting and publishing material. Sadly, the First World War disrupted their plans, and throughout the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s the Society concentrated its efforts on its journal and its library.

From the 1960s onwards, the Folklore Society steadily raised the academic standard of its journal and other publications, and gained increasing international recognition. Many of its members have written substantial books on one or other aspect of British folk tradition – children’s games and beliefs, witchcraft, fairy lore, plant lore, local legends, seasonal customs, folksong, superstitions, etc – often drawing on the resources of its library and journal. Even in this age of the internet, it is still important to have access to material where accuracy and evidence remain paramount.

[EDW] I've asked many of those in this interview series where their fascination with the subjects that they study actually stem from, and I'd like to extend that question to you; did you have a love of folk and fairy tales in childhood, or is this an interest that developed later in life ?

[JS] My mother used to say it was her fault I turned to folklore, since she gave me Grimm’s fairy tales, stories of King Arthur, and a book on Greek myths as a child. Certainly I liked them, but the real fascination developed much later, through Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and medieval poetry.

[EDW] Born in Worthing, Sussex, you've clearly taken a great interest in the folklore of your home county (or rather, home counties, given that Sussex has been divided into East and West for administrative purposes), having published a book titled simply The Folklore of Sussex (1973, 2002, 2009) and papers on such sites as Chanctonbury Ring and the Long Man of Wilmington. I can certainly understand why you would be interested in this area; it's a beautiful place – I myself spent many months with an archaeological team excavating on Bow Hill in West Sussex, home to such folkloric monuments as the Devil's Humps. For you, as a native, what is it that is so fascinating about the folklore of Sussex ? How does it stand out from the folklore of neighbouring counties like London, Kent, or Surrey ?

The Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex
Copyright CupCakeKid/Wikimedia
[JS] I remember very precisely how and when my interest turned to Sussex tales. It was in the summer of 1968. I had been working on Icelandic legends, but one day I was chatting with some workmen who were repainting my kitchen, and one of them jokingly mentioned the Devil at Chanctonbury Ring. This brought back my own childhood memories, and I thought to myself, ‘Hey, it’s not just in Iceland that people tell stories about the landscape, we do it here too! Maybe there are more… Enough for an article, perhaps?’ I knew that Worthing Public Library has a large Local History Reference section, so basic research should be fairly simple. Sure enough, I found many references to local customs, tales and superstitions scattered through back issues of the Sussex County Magazine from the 1930s and 40s, in little books on the history of some village, and in published memoirs. Most were brief, but by putting them together, there was soon not only enough for an article, but the makings of a book.
At first the fascination came largely from awareness that this is my county, so these are my stories, but very soon I realised that the same story-patterns can crop up in pretty well any part of Britain, provided the landscape is appropriate – obviously you won’t find tales about giants hurling rocks at one another if there are no rocks lying around. This repetition itself fascinates me too; so many legends that at first seem ‘local’ are in fact ‘migratory’, and not merely within Britain but often in Europe too. Details may vary to fit local topography and local history, but the core of the tale remains recognisable.
I think it dangerous to claim that the folklore of one county ‘stands out’ from others. So much will depend on the accident of whether there have or have not been people to actively collect and record the traditions of that particular area. Nor do I think the county is a really significant unit when one is assessing variation. Sometimes one can spot small local clusters where a story, song or custom seems to have spread from one village to another not far off, presumably through imitative rivalry. And sometimes there are large-scale regional differences, due to differences in social and economic history, e.g. in the growth of cities and industrialisation.

[EDW] Perhaps the strongest single research theme in your career has been the folklore of the Nordic world, something stemming from your undergraduate studies in Medieval Icelandic. Aside from various peer-reviewed papers on the subject, you have published The Northmen Talk: A Choice of Tales from Iceland (1965), Everyday Life in the Viking World (1967), Icelandic Folktales and Legends (1972, 2004), Legends of Icelandic Magicians (1975), The Viking World (1980), and Scandinavian Folktales (1988), in addition to adding introductions and notes to published translations of such Old Icelandic texts as Gudmundar Saga (1955) and Heimskringla (1964). You remain a senior figure in the study of folklore from this region, as evidenced by the fact that last year, an article in The Atlantic cited you in its discussion of elf beliefs in contemporary Iceland. What is it that attracts you to the folk tales of the Northern nations, and could you tell us more about your life's research into the folk beliefs and tales of the Nordic region ?

[JS] My interest in Northern literature and lore began with a book I happened to see in my school library, Word Hoard by Margaret Williams. It was an introduction to Anglo-Saxon culture, with translations of various poems, including ‘The Wanderer’ and parts of ‘Beowulf’, and also some information about pagan myths. Then in 1948 the BBC broadcast a two-part radio dramatisation of Njals Saga. I was deeply impressed by the dark, doomed courage seen in the poetry, in the saga heroes, and in some of the myths.

[EDW] As someone who is primarily an Anglo-Saxonist by university training, I am interested by your work with the eminent historian Hilda Ellis Davidson, whom you worked alongside in The Folklore Society and who authored a chapter on archaeology that was included alongside an edition of Old English poem Beowulf that you co-translated with George Garmonsway in 1968. How did you come to know Davidsen, and what was it like working alongside her ?

The first folio of the Beowulf manuscript.
Copyright British Library/Wikimedia
[JS] In the summer of 1950, towards the end of my first year at Bedford College, Hilda Davidson came as a visiting lecturer to give a single talk on Anglo-Saxon swords. She was at that time on the staff of Birkbeck College, another branch of London University; previously, under her maiden name of Hilda Ellis, she had published her first book, The Road to Hel, a study of early Nordic beliefs about death and the afterlife, which I had read with great excitement. Of course as a mere student I did not actually meet her on this occasion, but her lecture had a decisive impact on my life

In the London Honours English course, students had to pick an ‘ancillary’ subject to study in their latter two years, something only marginally related to the main syllabus. The ancillaries on offer at Bedford were Modern Irish Drama, the History of Literary Criticism, and Medieval Icelandic (Old Norse). I passionately wanted to do the latter, of course. But a fellow student, one of those candid friends one should avoid like the plague, told me I’d become such a bore on the topic of Old English poetry that if I added sagas to my repertoire I’d be unliveable with, and Icelandic was a useless subject anyway. This had shaken me – was I being selfish? Should I give up my own wishes, and do Irish Drama? Then I listened to Dr Davidson on how pattern-welding was done, and what magic there was in swords, and I came out of her lecture almost in tears at the thought of abandoning the wonders of the North… and, encouraged by an older and more sensitive friend, I signed up for the Old Norse course.
Years later, when I joined the Folklore Society, I was delighted to find that Hilda was on the Council, and we got to know each other well. She had an amazing range of knowledge and interests, and wonderful enthusiasm, both in lectures and in conversation. Time and again she would return from visiting some archaeological site or some museum exhibition, with glad cries of ‘It’s so, so exciting!’
It was Professor Garmonsway’s idea that she should contribute a chapter to the Beowulf book, since archaeology was relevant to the topic. She sent her section direct to him, so I cannot claim to have actually worked with her. Of course we often talked of Anglo-Saxon and Norse topics, and went to the same meetings and conferences.

One which I remember well was the second Celtic-Nordic-Baltic Folklore Symposium in Galway in 1991; we sat together, simmering with quiet indignation whenever speakers claimed that a particular genre (e.g. legends of buried treasures) was distinctively Celtic-Nordic, when we knew it was common in England too. This the first time I really grasped how little was known outside Britain – or even in Britain itself -- about our rich repertoire of local legend. When we got back to England we grumbled about this to various friends in the FLS, including Jennifer Westwood. I suspect that the origins of
Lore of the Land may go back to these grumbles.

[EDW] Throughout the latter part of the 1970s and 1980s you also published on a wide array of folkloric topics: The Folklore of the Welsh Border (1976), British Dragons (1980), The Penguin Dictionary of Historical Slang (1982; with Eric Partridge), and European Mythology (1989). How did you manage to carry out so many diverse strands of research, and what brought about your interest in these various subjects ?

[JS] The first two you mention were natural developments from The Folklore of Sussex. It had sold unusually well for such a topic, so the publishers (Batsford) commissioned a series of similar regional books, and assigned the English counties nearest to the Welsh border to me. I was dubious, for it is a large area to cover in a book of the size they had allotted, and much of it had already been covered by previous folklorists. I would have preferred to tackle some less well known area, but for commercial reasons the publishers stuck to their choice. I think of Folklore of the Welsh Border as my ‘patchwork quilt book’ – a mass of small items stitched together from various sources.

British Dragons
, on the other hand, arose entirely from my personal fascination with the topic, which started when I found out that my own Sussex dragon, the Knucker of Lyminster, was not alone of his species, for there were other local dragons and dragon-slayers scattered up and down Britain, each more dramatic and/or amusing than the last, which nobody had ever studied as a group. I spent many happy hours tracking them down through various books of regional and local lore in the FLS library

Historical Slang book was another commissioned work, a scissors-and-paste job abridging and selecting from Partridge’s extant two-volume Dictionary of Slang. A boring job, with no actual research involved.
European Mythology was again a publisher’s idea -- or rather, my modification of their idea. Hamlyn were running a series of mythology books, and what they thought of as European ‘mythology’ was stories of historical or semi-historical figures regarded as heroes. I said this was very narrow; I would prefer to tackle wider issues in popular belief and culture, e.g. the belief in witchcraft, or in fairies, attitudes to death, and so on. I have always liked writing for ‘general readers’ and giving them what I hope is sensible information on topics which intrigue me, so this was a book I very much enjoyed doing. Once again, information mostly came via the FLS library.

Margaret Murray argued that the alleged
witches of Early Modern Christendom
(seen here in a painting by Goya) were really
practitioners of a pre-Christian fertility religion.
[EDW] Much of my research has looked at the development of the contemporary Pagan religion of Wicca, which was founded largely from the basis of the Witch-Cult theory advocated by Egyptologist Margaret Murray in the first half of the twentieth-century. One of your most widely read papers was of course “Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her and Why?”, published in Folklore in 1994; in that paper you built on the work of historian Norman Cohn and highlighted the various problems that seriously undermined Murray's hypothesis. Why did you feel the need to put together that paper, and what do you think Murray's influence in folkloristics – and the public perception of folkloristics – has been?

[JS] It began accidentally. The Folklore Society decided to hold a conference on the theme of women folklorists in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and we sat around discussing who’d like to do which. I picked Murray because I’d read her Witch-Cult in Western Europe in my teens, and had found it exciting and convincing. Naturally by the 1980s I had long realised that her theory was historically rubbish, but my memory of her actual arguments was vague, and I assumed that I would be saying something like ‘She was wrong of course, but when one considers that she used X as source and was influenced by Y, it becomes understandable.’ Instead, I discovered that she distorted, or even suppressed, the statements in her sources in order to fit her preconceived theories, and that her attitude to other scholars was arrogantly dismissive. I was astonished, and indignant.
Murray’s influence on the general public had been considerable. It can be seen in many writings from the 1930s onwards, from the pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica to assumptions made about pagan survivals in detective stories, ghost stories and horror films, and it was, as you say, crucial to the formation of Wicca in the 1940s. It was widely assumed among historians that most folklorists endorsed her views – even Ronald Hutton in his early book The Stations of the Sun casually referred to ‘the folkloric or Murrayite view of witchcraft’ – and I felt this mistaken perception might well be one reason why folklore was not seen as a ‘respectable’ academic subject. I felt it was very necessary to put the record straight.

[EDW] In the early years of the twenty-first century, you published two significant overview works on the subject of English folklore; The Dictionary of English Folklore (2000), which you co-authored with Steve Roud, and The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England's Legends (2005), which you co-authored with Jennifer Westwood. These are both major projects, and I was wondering how they actually came about, and what you see as their successes ?

[JS] These were indeed massive projects, and I feel proud and happy to have achieved them. As regards The Dictionary of English Folklore, the initiative again came from the publishers (this seems to be a recurrent theme in my life!). Oxford UP was expanding its range of dictionaries, and approached me to ask if I would do one on folklore. I replied that I would love to, but that the subject is far too big and varied for one person to tackle, and in particular that I was not competent to deal with the musical side. I suggested bringing in Steve Roud, who already had extensive knowledge of folksong, dancing, and the mumming plays. The combination worked extremely well. Steve wrote the entries on these topics, and also most of those on seasonal customs and festivals. I dealt with narratives (local and historical legends, fairytales), magic and supernatural beings (fairies, bogies, witchcraft, ghosts, demons). He did weddings and Christmas; I did Easter and funerals.
The Lore of the Land was originally Jennifer Westwood’s idea; she had convinced Penguin that there was scope for a whole book on English legends, but she also felt that it would be more than she could tackle alone, so she invited me in as her collaborator. This time, the division of labour was not according to topic but by geography. She took counties north of the Thames and up the east half of England, plus Cornwall, on which she had worked some years before; I took the south and the west. We overlapped a bit in the midlands, and shared London; we also shared the ‘green page’ mini-essays on particular subjects. Once again the collaboration worked very smoothly and happily.
With both these books, my collaborators and I had two main aims: to present as full a picture as possible of England’s numerous folk traditions, and to correct out-dated and inaccurate ideas about them which persisted at popular level, e.g. in guide-books, press and TV, though now discarded by scholars. Usually this was a matter of dating; people assumed a custom or belief must be ancient – medieval at the very least, preferably pagan, prehistoric, and concerned with fertility – when the earliest evidence for its existence was from the 17th or 18th century. Jennifer, Steve and I all see folkloristics as a branch of historical studies, where accurate evidence is of prime importance. I am confident that our books are succeeding in both aims.

Acclaimed fantasy author Terry Pratchett
Copyright Luigi Novi/Wikimedia Commons
[EDW] In 1997 you met the famous fantasy author Terry Pratchett at a book signing, and have since become friends, co-authoring a book titled The Folklore of Discworld (2008) together. How did this collaboration come about, and were you a fan of Pratchett's work beforehand?

[JS] I first discovered the Discworld books when Wyrd Sisters came out (in 1988, I think) and fell in love at once with their cleverness and humour. I read them all avidly, but I was not a ‘fan’ in the sense of going to Discworld Conventions, or collecting Disc-related jewellery, stamps, figurines, craft-work – indeed, I never imagined such things existed. Then in 1997 I learnt that Terry would be coming to Worthing for a book signing, and by good luck I was free that afternoon. Terry’s interest in folklore is obvious from his books, so I decided to give him a copy of my Folktales of Scandinavia as a small thank-you for all the pleasure he had given me. Now, it so happened that he was asking everyone in the queue what rhymes and superstitions they knew about magpies, since he wanted to put magpies into Carpe Jugulum, so he was delighted to find a folklorist standing before him. I told him as much as I could remember there and then, and offered to send him some more once I had consulted books I had at home. That was how it all began.
Not long after, the Folklore Society Committee suggested that I invite him to lecture to us, which he did; it was the most crowded lecture in our history, and a huge success. Meanwhile, he had enlisted me as one of his ‘occasional consultants’, and would ring me up from time to time to check up on some folkloric point he wanted to use. And the phone conversations would then ramble off into a general exchange of news and views, so that although we did not meet again in person, we soon became friends.
Then one day he told me, on the phone, how his fans often asked questions which showed a distressing ignorance of traditional lore, such as, ‘What gave you the idea of having three witches?’ Would it be useful, he asked me, to have a book about the folklore of Discworld, rather like the ones on its science? Certainly, said I, there would be plenty to say. ‘Right,’ said Terry, ‘We will do it together.’ After a moment’s stunned silence, I delightedly agreed.
The collaboration worked very smoothly, by email. I would draft a section and send it to him, and it would return peppered with additional details, jokes, references, footnotes. It is very thoroughly interwoven, so it is just as well that nobody has demanded to know who wrote what. Since 2008 I have been adding further comments on folklore material he has used in more recent books; these appeared in the e-book versions and are now gathered in this year’s second and updated edition of The Folklore of Discworld.
I may say that in 2008 I became a fully fledged fan – I now go to Conventions and Wincanton Gatherings, often in rather crazy costumes, and to book launchings. The whole thing has been a most happy experience.

Simpson's Green Men & White
. Copyright Arrow Books 2011.
[EDW] Your most recent book has been Green Men & White Swans: The Folklore of British Pub Names (2010), in which you delved into yet another aspect of Britain's folklore. What was the impetus behind this project, and have you got any further research projects in the pipeline ?

[JS] Green Men and White Swans. The suggestion for this book came from the publishers, presumably wanting to build on the success of Lore of the Land, though they said there should be less detail and no scholarly apparatus. It was a fairly easy task, as much of the material is based on what Jennifer and I did for Lore, though presented from a different angle.
I probably will not undertake another book-length project, because I do now find that going up to London is tiring, and working in libraries most frustrating – they are hot, the books are heavy, the shelves either too high or too low for me to read their titles, and in most places (including, alas, the Folklore Society) you have to order the book you need in advance, which means you can never make accidental discoveries or pursue a clue there and then. So I will probably limit myself to small projects which I can cope with in my own home.

[EDW] Given that you have decades of expertise in the subject, I wondered what you felt the current state of folkloristics was like in Britain, and on the wider international stage ? Furthermore, what problems do you think that it will face with the current cut backs and neo-liberal reforms in the university sector, and what – in your opinion – will the discipline look like in future decades? 

[JS] At present the study of folklore is in remarkably good shape in Britain. Over the past few decades we have seen a succession of well-researched, soundly based surveys of various branches of the subject, regional studies, individual figures (Robin Hood, Spring-heeled Jack, Dick Turpin) and (for the first time) books specifically about London’s folklore, plus Steve Roud’s massive index to folksong and Doc Rowe’s even more massive archives recording the annual performances of our customs over many years. There is no excuse now for wild speculation and woolly theorising – an enormous amount of factual data has been amassed and presented in accessible form, largely thanks to the efforts of members of the Folklore Society and the English Folk Dance and Song Society.  

As for the future, who can tell? At the public level, I am confident that traditional customs and performances will remain popular and will modify themselves whenever necessary to fit in with changing circumstances. The academic future is less clear. Sad experience has shown that when financial cut-backs loom, folklore is one of the first areas to suffer. In some cases, some aspects of folkloristics could find a niche within a faculty of History or English, as it currently has at Chichester. But experience has also shown that individuals have achieved much when researching and writing outside the walls of academia, and I trust this will continue to be possible.

EDW: Jacqueline Simpson, thank you so much for talking to us today - it has been a pleasure, and I am sure that many readers will find your comments to be of great interest. I wish you all the best for the future.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

New Publication: "Devil's Stones and Midnight Rites: Megaliths, Folklore, and Contemporary Pagan Witchcraft" in Folklore 125(1)

I am very pleased to announce that the publishing company Taylor and Francis have just uploaded a copy of my latest published paper over at their website, where it is now available for download. The paper itself appears in the latest volume of peer-reviewed academic journal Folklore, the U.K.'s foremost outlet in the field of folkloristics and the thrice-a-year publication of the prestigious Folklore Society. Although this is my fourth published research paper, Folklore is certainly the biggest "name" journal to publish any of my work, so (for me personally at least) it marks an exciting milestone in my academic trajectory.

Logo of the Folklore Society, publishers of Folklore.
The research paper in question is titled "Devil's Stones and Midnight Rites: Megaliths, Folklore, and Contemporary Pagan Witchcraft", and started life as a conference paper which I presented at the first "Popular Antiquities: Folklore and Archaeology" conference held at my alma mater, the UCL Institute of Archaeology, back in October 2011. I subsequently made some revisions to the article, and sent it off to Folklore, where it was peer-reviewed by two very kind anonymous scholars (my thanks must go out to both of them, for the paper is certainly greatly improved as a result of their constructive comments). Thankfully for me, it was deemed worthy of publication and is now ready to be shared with the world. Due to copyright issues, unfortunately the paper cannot be offered for free, but in lieu of that, I include the (unusually short) abstract here: 
During the middle years of the twentieth century, British pioneers of Wicca, the neopagan witchcraft religion, adopted prehistoric megaliths as ‘sacred sites’ and appropriated the folklore that surrounded them for their own magico-religious purposes. In turn, Wiccan interpretations of such sites resulted in the creation of a new ‘alternative archaeological’ megalithic folklore. 

For me the paper has been a way of exploring the areas where many of my research interests intersect and merge. Not only does it deal with archaeology in that it is looking at megalithic monuments, but it also explores the field of folklore, as well as that of religious studies, in particular the study of contemporary Paganism(s). These are all areas where I am actively continuing my research, so if all goes to plan I shall be publishing on the Pagan use of archaeology and folklore again in future.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

An Interview with Thomas A. Dowson

This month at Albion Calling I am honoured to present archaeologist and rock art studies specialist Thomas A. Dowson, formerly of the University of Southampton and before that the University of the Witwatersrand. Many will know Dowson for his pioneering work with David Lewis-Williams in arguing that the cave art of Palaeolithic Western Europe was the product of a shamanistic belief system, while others will be aware of their important research into the pictographs of Southern Africa, where he grew up. Others however will undoubtedly know of Dowson for his equally pioneering work in launching the field of queer archaeology, which offers us a radical and exciting way of reassessing the discipline. He has since retired from academic archaeology to provide heritage tours of France and now runs the excellent Archaeology Travel website. Here he has taken a little time out of his busy schedule to offer us a fascinating insight into his career and research.

Dowson at the Castle of Chenonceau, Indre-et-Loire
EDW: Growing up on a farm in (what is now) Zimbabwe, you took an early interest in the rock art produced by members of the San hunter-gatherer populations across southern Africa. Did you have direct access to these wonderful pictographs at the time, or was this an interest that was stemmed through school or some other such outlet ?

TD: The farm we lived on was about seven miles south of what was then Salisbury, now the Zimbabwean capital Harare. The farm house had been built about fifty or so metres from a granite outcrop typical of that area. And it was in the sometimes very slight shelters of those "kopjes" as they are called that hunters and gatherers painted on the rock surfaces. The kopje behind our house had quite a large shelter with rock paintings in it. As it was north facing it was a great place to hangout. That must have been when I was six or seven. 

Although I can not recall what the paintings in that shelter looked like, they definitely stayed with me. At school, as part of an art project, we were required to find a rock and paint something on it. Although I forget the context of the project (it may very well have had something to do with learning about prehistory), I distinctly remember deciding to try and reproduce what I had seen on the rock back at the farm - or rather what I thought I had seen. I can still see the image I painted. The painful irony is that I painted a man with a spear chasing a zebra. A popular misconception of prehistoric rock art that I would go onto spend many years trying to dispel. I went on to become more interested in rock art while studying archaeology at university.

EDW: What made you decide to study archaeology at an academic level, and at university did you focus your attention on the rock art that had captivated your interest since childhood ?

TD: For as long as I can remember I have been interested in evolution and science. And two historical figures, Charles Darwin and Marie Curie, fascinated me from an early age. As a child I almost certainly had a romanticised image of both of these people, which partly derived from a book I read at school about "great lives". I greatly enjoyed playing with chemistry sets, and anything to do with Charles Darwin. One night I had to get permission from my parents to stay up late one 'school night' to watch a documentary about Darwin's voyage on the Beagle. I was as excited about staying up late as I was about watching Charles Darwin. By the time I went to university then I wanted to be a scientist, more specifically to study past climates.

I enrolled for a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of the Witwatersrand, with majors in Botany and Geology. Rock art did not feature in my career plans. Geology turned out to be a big disappointment for me. Only because being in the mining capital of South Africa, the geology department was in effect a mining school. Two weeks of Palaeontology was tacked on to the end of the course, and that was all dinosaurs - which have never interested me!

At that time I was working in the campus bookshop with an archaeology student, and he suggested I should consider switching from geology to archaeology. Which I did. One day during my first year of archaeology, I was in the student reading room of the archaeology department and David Lewis-Williams came in looking for help to load up his vehicle for a field trip he was going on to the Drakensberg. The Drakensberg was somewhere I had longed to go to for years. And so I asked Lewis-Williams if he ever took students on field trips. He said I should leave my name and phone number of a piece of paper in his mailbox. It was months before he ever contacted me to join a field trip, and three years before I got to go to the Drakensberg.

EDW: In his recent lectures here in London, a colleague of yours, David Lewis-Williams, commented on his personal experiences with San communities learning about how their ancestors produced rock art and why; did you yourself get to spend much time with these communities ?

An example of rock art in Twyfelontein. Image copyright
Thomas Schoch, available from Wikimedia Commons.
TD: In December 1989, I visited the large and well known rock engraving site of Twyfelontein in Namibia for my book Rock Engravings of Southern Africa. Megan Biesele, the anthropologist who had taken David Lewis-Williams to meet a San community, was working in Namibia at the time. I had asked her if I could meet her. Megan suggested she come to Twyfelontein. During her brief visit to the site we discussed the rock art with the members of the San community who had come with her. Later Megan invited me to visit her in the Nyae Nyae region in northern Namibia, and to climb the Brandburg. I visited the San in Nyae Nyae for two weeks in 1990, but because I contracted malaria we never got to climb the Brandberg mountain.

Although the people I met through Megan were not direct descendants of the San peoples who made the rock art, the two weeks in Nyae Nyae still had a profound effect on me as a scholar. This was a time when the various misconceptions about San history were still quiet prevalent, even amongst South Africa's historians. After getting off the plane from Windhoek, David Lewis-Williams showed me the proofs of a photography book he had been asked to write the text for. The book was to be called: The Bushman, A Vanished Way of Life. I was shocked. This title was the product of just one of the many misconceptions of the San communities in South Africa, that their way of life had long since disappeared and been relegated to study by prehistoric archaeologists. And in fact it was simply not true. It took a few days, but I eventually convinced Lewis-Williams that the title had to be changed. Not only was the title changed (the book was eventually called The Bushmen: A Changed Way of Life), but the publishers had to reprint the cover.

EDW: Given the white supremacist socio-political domination of much of southern Africa at the time, and the effect that this had on archaeological interpretation (the case of Great Zimbabwe being perhaps the best known), did you feel that your interest in indigenous African archaeologies was in any way constrained or threatened by the authorities ?

TD: There were always rumours about how the authorities were supposedly spying on us. Apparently, they were watching those archaeologists who were interested in, what was fashionable then, Marxist archaeology. Being at the University of the Witwatersrand during the 1980s this was nothing new, the campus was frequently raided by the security police. Looking back, however, I think I felt more intimidated and disturbed by some of the farmers whose land we had to access to get to rock art sites. Together with colleagues we heard and witnessed some horrific bigotry. That I will never forget.

EDW: You proceeded to work for ten years at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, where your research focused on San rock art. While based there, you co-wrote Images of Power: Understanding Bushman Rock Art (1989), Rock Paintings of the Natal Drakensberg (1992), and People, Politics, and Power: The Bushman People of Southern Africa (1995) with David Lewis-Williams, also co-editing the volume on Contested Images: Diversity in Southern African Rock Art Research (1994) with him. With Janette Deacon you produced Voices from the Past: !Xam Bushmen and the Bleek and Lloyd Collection (1995), and you are also responsible for Rock Engravings of Southern Africa (1992). As you must be aware, this was really pioneering, important stuff, exploring shamanistic explanations for these images and bringing in ideas from neuropsychology; looking back at this research now, it seems that it revolutionised the field of rock art studies. What was it like to be at the forefront of research in this area at the time, and how did your research begin to explore this enigmatic realm of shamanism ?

Dowson (left) undertaking fieldwork
with David Lewis-Williams.
Image provided by Dowson.

TD: Yes, it was an exciting period in the study of rock art to have been a part of. When I read rock art research today, I am still amazed at how some aspects of what is said about what the images might have meant are now taken for granted. Back in the 1990s discussions about these issues, even amongst rock art scholars, were all but pitched battles. I still chuckle to myself when I see certain scholars use the term shamanism in a positive context! As important and pioneering as the work we were doing then was, there is still a long way to go. Our understanding of shamanism and its association with rock art is not without error and Eurocentric misconceptions.

Shamanism aside, I am more proud of the papers I published in the mid 1990s that sought to bring Bushman communities back into the history of South Africa, and not as people who simply made stone tools and hunted. Research that received very hostile receptions at history and archaeology conference in the early 1990s. Even from archaeologists. The idea that rock art is as important to South Africa's history and any early colonial document might be is now taken for granted. In fact it would be absurd to think otherwise.

One of the popular misconceptions of the time, reproduced by all the leading South African historians in both popular and academic literature, was that the San people had either been pushed out of South Africa by the Black farming communities when they arrived about 2,000 years ago, or they played little role in the unfolding story of the subcontinent. Archaeologists did a lot of work to challenge this view: the San did not get pushed out of South Africa by the farmers, rather they stayed and enjoyed positive social and economic relations with the farmers. I took this idea a step further and showed we could use the rock art as a "historical document" to show that the San communities were as implicated in the various political events that have unfolded over the last two thousand or so years, following the arrival of pastoralists and farmers, up until and after the arrival of the whites in South Africa in the 1700s.

EDW: From there you turned your attention further north, to look at the rock art of Western Europe, with which I am better acquainted. In particular you've looked at some of the Upper Palaeolithic cave art from modern France (much of which I was fortunately able to view first-hand on a recent archaeological trip to Dordogne), and argued that the origins of these images might well be explained through the shamanism hypothesis. What inspired you to move from Southern Africa and into Upper Palaeolithic Europe ?

Dowson and Lewis-Williams argued for a shamanistic
origin for much Upper Palaeolithic cave art. Pictured here
is a horse from Lascaux cave.
TD: The Ice Age cave art of Europe was a project I started working on with David Lewis-Williams in the mid 1980s. Then as now, the Palaeolithic cave art of Europe was something of a holy grail for rock art scholars and archaeologists. An obvious reflection of the Eurocentricism that still pervades much of rock art research.

Given our approach to the rock art of southern Africa, what other rock art researchers were saying elsewhere, particularly in North America - notably Ken Hedges, Polly Schaafsma, Solveig Turpin, David Whitley - we thought there was a strong possibility that the rock art in Europe was also shamanistic. And so we set about to establish that - using the neuropsychology of altered states of consciousness. Something else that was received with a fair degree of hostility and derision. Now its a given.

EDW: Following your decade at Witwatersrand, you then moved here to England, taking up a position at the University of Southampton, where you set up the world's first postgraduate course on prehistoric art. How did this scenario come about, and did you find it an easy experience ? What was it like suddenly being transposed from the South African academic environment and being immersed in the British situation ?

TD: For various reasons I was thinking about leaving Wits University. When the late Peter Ucko, then Dean of Arts at the University of Southampton, got in touch with me and suggested I visit him and Tim Champion, the then head of the Archaeology Department, I stopped over in Southampton on my way to a conference in the US. The idea of starting the World's first dedicated rock art postgraduate degree programme was seductive and I was seduced. The experience was not as easy as I thought it would be. And I found the move to England to be very unsettling, personally and academically.

EDW: It was in 2000 that the prestigious World Archaeology journal published a volume edited by yourself that was devoted to the question of “Queer Archaeologies.” Many of my readers will probably be unfamiliar with the term “queer archaeology”, so for their benefit, could you explain what exactly the term means to you ? Did you have a background in queer theory, and how did you come to the decision to bring it into archaeology ?

TD: I find it easier to say what queer theory is not, rather than what it is. Queer Archaeology, for me anyway - how I intended it, is not as so many think and use the term, about looking for "sexual deviants" in the past. It is not a gay agenda for exploring homosexuality in the past (not that that is not important - but that is another issue entirely). Because the word "queer" is often used as a short hand for gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, and I am sure I left someone out, "queer archaeology" is thought to be about looking for these sexual identities in the past. In one sense it can be. But I argue it is so much more than that.

Dowson's edited volume of
World Archaeology (2000).
Queer archaeology is about challenging an established norm that is somehow based in sexual politics. Although academics (myself included) were quick to appropriate it, the notion of "queer" did not start in academia, but rather in the politics of 1980s sexual liberation in the US. Certain activists were becoming aware of the normalising effect which labels such as "gay" and "lesbian" were having. And this is still powerfully observable in debates about "gay marriage". Gays and lesbians in the West are now more "normal" than the heterosexuals who once shunned them! What has happened is gay is now to straight as women were/still are to men - subjugated and dominated. In their desire to go running up the aisle in a chiffon white dress, gay men and women have confused recognition with liberation. One only has to consider what the West is doing, or rather not doing, about gay men being burned alive in Uganda to find proof of this.

The queer activists challenged this by arguing that there was no such thing as a stable sexual identity. Queer theorists, and queer archaeology, went on to suggest that not only should we be challenging all that is accepted as the norm, but also to question the sexual politics that often lies at the heart of why something is considered the norm. A good controversial example I liked to use, is the chronocentric nature of archaeological endeavours.

In the 1990s many people, historians and archaeologists alike, said to me that I could not use rock art to construct South African history because I lacked a "firm chronological framework". This is true, dating rock art is an incredibly difficult enterprise (I would say impossible). But just because we do not have Gregorian Calendar style dates attached to each image, it does not mean the imagery is useless for historical interests (and I demonstrated the possibilities). What interests me is why archaeology is so desperately hung up on having firm chronological frameworks. And I believe chronocentricism in archaeology is a symptom of phallocentricism - just as the lack of a penis renders you weak and of little use, so the lack of a firm chronological framework renders your interpretations useless.

Queer archaeology is about challenging the norm, and in some cases that is about challenging the idea of stable sexual identities in the past, but it is not (as I hope that I have demonstrated) restricted to that.

EDW: Did you feel that there was much opposition to your moves in this direction from within the academic archaeological community ?

TD: You know, like most gay men of my age I have experienced homophobia - and of course there has been opposition. But I have also experienced support. I remember being incredibly nervous when I went to the World Archaeology editorial meeting at which I was to make my pitch for the "Queer Archaeologies" volume. I was so nervous I could barely speak, and my colleague and friend Yvonne Marshall had to take over the pitch for me. The idea was immediately accepted, there was not even the slightest murmur of doubt that it would be a topic worth including.

I was even more nervous when the volume was published. But, I received one email that made me think that I had done the right thing. An archaeologist from a Latin American country wrote to me and said "You have balls". He added that he did not think he could ever come out where he worked, but it was good to know that there were other archaeologists like him. And I had other emails like that. They made it worthwhile because when I came out, I was told by a very prominent South African archaeologist that I could not be an archaeologist if I was going to be "openly that way".

So the opposition has not really been an issue. I am more concerned, however, at how "Queer Theory" is misused in archaeology. It has become, as many predicted in the early 1990s, something of a bandwagon. But, in true "queer" fashion, that is not for me to try and control. I have had my say.

EDW: I'd be very interested to hear what role you think queer archaeology will have to play in the discipline over the coming decades ? Talking from personal experience here in London, there is certainly a great interest in heritage and archaeology among the LGBT and Queer community, and so I'd also be intrigued to know if you feel that queer archaeology could potentially act as a tool to encourage greater LGBT participation in archaeology; a more relateable face if you will ?

TD: As I am out of academia, I do not really feel I can comment on this. But I will recount a rather disturbing anecdote. In November 2012 I received an email out of the blue from a mature student who had started a postgraduate archaeology degree at University College London (UCL) in September 2012. This person was openly gay, and hoped to pursue research on some aspect of homosexuality in the past. Although I never met the person, from the email discussions we had, it seemed that they had their head screwed on. S/he had been involved in LGBT politics and counselling, and I was convinced s/he would do well. I was disappointed when in January 2013 I received an email to say s/he had packed it in. One of the reasons cited was the "lack of a LGBT support in archaeology". For 2013, that is disgraceful, and I find it quite upsetting. That person has gone on to do a PhD in LGBT mental health issues. Archaeology's loss is another discipline's gain.

I will say, as long as "Queer Archaeology" is seen as a manifesto for looking for homosexuality in the past, it will not be the force for change it could be.

EDW: In recent years you've ceased your life as a full time university lecturer and moved to Normandy, managing a B&B and organising archaeological tours of local sites associated with the Impressionist movement. You also run the excellent Archaeology Travel website, through which you provide information for tourists who have a particular interest in archaeological heritage; its a great resource and I encourage my readers to make use of it. What brought about this decision to make such a seemingly huge career change, and what do you see as the role of archaeological and art historical tourism in the 21st century ?

Dowson's Archaeology Travel website - well worth a look!
TD: As a student I had my fair share of awful lecturers. When I started teaching archaeology, I always said that when I no longer enjoyed it on a day-to-day level, I would pack it in. For various reasons, some personal and some to do with the politics of higher education in the UK at the beginning of the 2000s, I no longer enjoyed being an academic archaeologist.

My last lecture was a general lecture on rock art in a first year course on World Prehistory. The lecture was good, not my best but I was happy with it. Walking back to my office I was behind two young guys who were discussing the lecture. One said, "That was the best lecture we have had all year." The other replied, "Definitely." Because I no longer enjoyed being in an academic environment, I packed it in - but I went out on a high.

And I look back on my time teaching and researching rock art and archaeology with very fond memories. I had some excellent students, many of whom have gone on to do wonderful things. It would be mean to single out a few, and far too long to enthuse about them all.

Now, I greatly enjoy pursuing my passion for the past by exploring sites and periods of prehistory I never did while I was researching rock art. I love the Romans. Cultural Heritage is becoming big business, as every one wants to travel the World and see the famous sites for themselves. I think guardians of this heritage have the challenges they have always had, namely conservation and preservation, but on a scale never experienced before. People are still removing bricks from the Colosseum, taking frescoes from Pompeii, spraying graffiti on the amazing blocks of stone at Machu Picchu. And the physical effects of many more tourists climbing around the same sites continues to take its toll, and more so. Archaeology is going to have to play a much more active role in the growing movement of responsible tourism. I hope 'Archaeology Travel' will contribute to that, by encouraging people to look beyond the bucket list approach to the past.

EDW: Thank you Thomas for talking with us today!