Tuesday, 1 September 2015

An Interview with Me over at Patheos Pagan's "Dowsing for Divinity"

In anticipation of the November publication of my first book – Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft – which is being brought out by Sussex Academic Press, I was invited to be the subject of an interview by the longstanding Wiccan practitioner Yvonne Aburrow, who runs the “Dowsing for Divinity” blog over at Patheos Pagan. She asked me about the process of writing the book, my own relationship with Paganism and the Craft, and what my views were on the future of Wicca. If this sounds like something that would interest you, please check it out here. (And check out the book itself too when it ultimately hits stores later this year!)

Thursday, 27 August 2015

An Interview with Dr. Michael Strmiska

After an eight-month interval in the academic interview series here at Albion Calling, we are back with an insightful discussion provided thanks to the contribution of the American religious studies scholar Dr Michael Strmiska of the State University of New York – Orange County Community College. Many readers of Albion Calling should be familiar with Dr Strmiska’s work on those contemporary Pagan movements which draw inspiration primarily from the pre-Christian societies of Scandinavia and Lithuania, but others might instead know him as the man behind “the Political Pagan” blog in which he provides a left-leaning perspective on issues affecting this particular new religious movement. We talk about his life, work, and opinions on the state of Pagan studies scholarship today.

Dr. Strmiska at the WCER in Belgium, 2005. 

Image provided by Dr. Strmiska.
[EDW]: Born in 1960, you grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut, and attended Hampshire College in Massachusetts. After working in the field of mental health, you decided to go on and study Comparative Religion and History, obtaining an MA degree in South Asian Studies/Religions of India from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then a PhD in Religious Studies/Myth Studies from Boston University. In 1996–97 you then studied Old Norse literature at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik through a Fulbright Student Fellowship. What was it that inspired you to pursue a vocation in academia, and in particular in religious studies?

[MS]: I always had broad interests in religion, philosophy and history. Around 13 my world exploded with discovery of Carl Jung and Alan Watts. Those two opened me up to a lot. When I went to college, I intended a dual program of studies in Comparative Religion (for my heart’s desire) and Psychology (for practical career considerations.) In the end, I focused more on Psychology and worked in the mental health field after graduating, but found it unfulfilling due to growing prominence of psychiatric medication, which I strongly disagreed with. I saw (correctly) that it would take over psychology and lead people to focus on brains and chemicals, not issues and meaning. Though today I do acknowledge more readily that medication can be a real help, I still think we (and psychology-psychiatry) have lost a lot in becoming so physiologically-focused. We are thinking of ourselves more and more just as biochemical machines, which is exactly the kind of biological determinism that Freud and Jung strove to break away from.

By the mid-1980s, after 3 or so years working in mental health in the Boston area, I was becoming quite disgruntled with my lot and knew I had to do something else. My old interest in religion and mythology came calling, and I enrolled in a PhD program at Boston University called “Myth Studies,” under tutelage of Carl Ruck, great classicist who worked with Gordon Wasson on his “Soma” thesis and book in 1960s and did a lot to spark renewed interest in spiritual uses of mind-altering substances, “entheogens,” a term which Ruck either helped create or at the very least championed.  With doors recently re-opening for the exploration of LSD and other such psychoactive preparations, Ruck and Wasson may yet have the last laugh. After decades of a savage and harmful “War on Drugs” in the USA, people are again becoming open to the use, albeit careful use, of herbs and drugs that can induce spiritual journeys. Research is again becoming possible, and I expect we will see more and more of this.

My work in mental health also played a role in my decision to undertake higher studies. Working both in psychiatric hospitals and in outpatient mental health programs, I had discovered that I really enjoyed facilitating group therapy sessions, which made me realize that I would also very likely enjoy teaching. One particular activity spurred me this way. At a mental health program then called Second Story in Newton Centre, Mass., I led weekly current events discussion groups, varied once every month as “bizarre current events” in which we would look for amusing news stories from sources like the old Weekly World News, whose humorous “Ed Anger” columns have sadly provided the forerunner of right-wing political blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and the general thrust of FOX News.

Dr. Strmiska at home in Spring 2015.
[EDW]: Your PhD research constituted a comparative study of afterlife beliefs in pre-Christian Scandinavia and Vedic India. How did this particular piece of research come about and what were its findings ? Have you any thoughts to publish it in future ?

[MS]: After two years in grad school at BU, I decided to start over in a program focusing on Indian religion, which led me to an MA in South Asian Studies at UW-Madison in 1988. I also chose University of Wisconsin because it had a fine Scandinavian Studies Department that would allow me to indulge my interest in pre-Christian Scandinavian mythology and religion. I also deepened my knowledge of the Indo-European link between Nordic (Scandinavian) and Vedic (Indian-Hindu) language, myth and religion. I took classes in both areas including language courses in Sanskrit, Hindi and Old Norse.  I would note Indian religion scholar David Knipe and Old Norse professor Dick Ringler as my key mentors at UW.  They also modeled great teaching and I continue to remember their kind and thorough approach to teaching with immense fondness and respect.

I returned to BU for my dissertation in 1991, having decided to pursue a three-way Indo-European comparison of afterlife beliefs and funerary practices among three ancient traditions, the Vedic, the Nordic – and the Celtic. I did a lot of work on Celtic materials, in fact, studying under the fine Celticist Patrick Ford at Harvard University through a theological studies consortium in the Boston area. I eventually dropped the Celtic piece in order to finish more quickly, as I was very slow in my overall progress, not getting my PhD until 2002.  However, I still have all my Celtic notes and the approximately 150 pages of writing I did surveying the Celtic materials.

I have thought about revising and publishing the dissertation now and then, but when my research in modern (or neo-) Paganism took off, it took me with it and it has been hard to get back to the more strictly historical approach of the dissertation. Now, though, the time may be coming.  I may have found a nice way to link both of my fields of endeavour together, with a book that would look first at ancient afterlife traditions as known from historical, textual and archaeological sources, then look at modern-day Pagan adaptations of these beliefs and practices, and combine the old with the new.  As I have tended to frame Paganism as European-derived, I would offer chapters on Celtic and Nordic traditions, possibly in partnership with other scholars, and certainly invite Pagan studies colleagues to write on other areas, and then add an Indic section as an extra-European section, showing the Indian background to many European Pagan traditions.

[EDW]: Proceeding to work professionally in academia, you worked as Professor of Religious Studies and History at the Anglophone Miyazaki International College in Kyushu, Japan, from 1999 to 2004, before taking on the role of Fulbright Fellow Lecturer in Religious Studies and Humanities at Siauliai University in Lithuania from 2004–05. Returning to the U.S., you worked briefly at Central Connecticut State University and then Cape Cod University College in Massachusetts until, in August 2008, you joined the faculty at the Global Studies Department of the State University of New York – Orange County Community College (SUNY-Orange), where you teach World History and Asian History. Most recently you have taken a break from the States to start teaching a class on “Neo-Paganism and Northern European Mythology” at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic. What do you believe has been behind your love of teaching and studying in far flung corners of the globe, and how have you reconciled your interest in such a wide variety of subjects?

[MS]: You leave out that in addition to my SUNY-Orange duties, I taught a course on “Neo-Paganism and New Religious Movements” at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass, my undergraduate alma mater this past spring (2015), which was wonderful. Hampshire did so much to open and expand my mind when I was 18, and I am glad to see it remains a radical, progressive and experimental institution, which I was very pleased to now participate in as a teacher. The undergraduate-level Hampshire course that I developed has provided the basis for the graduate-level course that I am soon to teach at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic.

As to why I have had such a geographically and culturally scattered academic career, this was not the result of any conscious design, just the fateful combination of cultural curiosity, willingness to follow opportunities where they led, inability to engage in responsible financial planning and a lack of motivation for marriage and family. If I had wanted to raise children or accumulate wealth, my itinerary would not have been possible.  I enjoy experiencing different regions of the world very much and really have come to feel that all humans are one family, which is one reason I cannot get along with tribal-oriented Pagans who seek a closed form of community based on a rather narrow view of human history and heritage. I do find great meaning in historical connections, which has led me to live in both of my parents’ ancestral homelands of Lithuania and (soon) the Czech Republic, and I do greatly value heritage from the past, but I look to the future and see that we are all part of a tapestry with many threads of many types, from the genetic to the cultural to the historical to the spiritual. Living in Japan 1999-2004 was enormously intriguing and stimulating, and seeing Buddhism, Shinto and the Japanese knack for loving and combining both the archaic and the hyper-modern was very influential and inspiring to me.

[EDW]: You have devoted much research to the subject of “Germanic” inspired forms of contemporary Paganism, which are commonly referred to under the umbrella term of “Heathenry” or “Heathenism”. In particular you have looked at the Asatru communities of Iceland and the U.S., and have published on this subject in such outlets as The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies and Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. How did you get involved in this particular field, in which – quite simply – you were a pioneer, going where very, very few academic scholars had gone before ?

[MS]: I would note that most of my recent publications have actually been about Baltic forms of Paganism, mainly the Lithuanian Romuva movement, as well as Asian-oriented New Religious Movements, so it would not be true that I only write about Ásatrú, Heathenry, and/or Germanic/Nordic/ Norse/Scandinavian/ forms of Paganism. (Note: recently I prefer Norse-Germanic Paganism as a catch-all term that covers all relevant bases and slights none).  It is true however that I feel a deep responsibility to both accurately describe the evolution and variations of modern Norse-Germanic Paganism, and to contribute some suggestions for its development in a non-racist, humanistic manner. I have several articles that I am sitting on as I want to develop them further, and only issue them when I am confident that I have found the proper way to speak carefully about some controversial matters in a way that I believe will be constructive. I am not in a position where I have to publish x number of articles or books to keep my job, so I can be prudent (or lazy) about publishing.

Heathen practitioners in Iceland, where Strmiska has done much research.
Image by Haukurth, available at Wikimedia Commons.
To answer your main question of how I got started in this, it goes back to childhood interest in Thor comics and Scandinavian mythology, an interest further developed in college and grad school. By the late 1980s I was conscious of the Ásatrú movement, though my first brush with it was not a happy one. I sent away to an Ásatrú group in Florida that sent me back some newsletters filled with racist propaganda. I still have those documents. I was appalled and did not again explore anything Ásatrú-related until the early 1990s, when back in Boston, I found a few people interested in this sort of thing. We got together a few times without doing much, but I could see the possibility.

My true initiation into Ásatrú came in fall of 1996 when I received a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Iceland, furthering my knowledge of modern Icelandic and Old Icelandic (Old Norse) as well as enjoying exploring modern Iceland, another place that, like Japan, appreciates past and present and future and blends it all seamlessly. I was introduced to members of the Icelandic Ásatrú Fellowship (Ásatrúarfélagið) and very simply, fell in love.

I immediately appreciated the way the members of the group had very different beliefs and interpretations of the meaning, use and value of Norse myth and religion, but came together to both celebrate this heritage and to experiment and extend it as needed or desired, with a healthy sense of humor balancing a very deep spirituality, along with a penchant for artistic expression. One can be deep without becoming dense, and they do this very well in Iceland.  Well, you know, those Icelanders are half-Elf anyway… that’s why Björk is able to sing like that.  I have also met Ásatrú followers or Heathens elsewhere in Scandinavia, most especially Sweden, who have similarly impressed and inspired me as well.

When I returned to live in America after further years abroad in 2005, I found it difficult to locate Ásatrú people with the same sensibility.  I found many Americans interested in Ásatrú to have conservative, sometimes racist, often militaristic views and values that were poison to me. When I tried to engage in dialogue with other Ásatrú members on issues like racism and militarism, hoping to advocate for a more, shall I say left-wing form of Ásatrú, I found myself hounded and hated and rarely encouraged. So I retreated into solitude, and this has also complicated my ability to publish about Ásatrú, though I think I am gearing up to again put my views onto the written page. I have been informally publishing, however, through the blog www.thepoliticalpagan.blogspot.com which has been a nice way to get some ideas out and get some feedback. I have found I am not alone in my politico-religious predicament. To be fair, though, with half of America being fairly conservative in its views, it is entirely understandable that the Pagan scene would need a conservative form of religion, and the American variation of Ásatrú has served that market very successfully. I do hope however to help develop a less militarist, more environmentalist, and ardently anti-racist, anti-Fascist form of Ásatrú that will be in harmony with the Icelandic and Scandinavian groups that are also on this same wavelength.

[EDW]: Accompanying your interest in Heathen variants of contemporary Paganism, you have begun to undertake (again pioneering) research into Romuva, the contemporary Pagan religion rooted in the culture and history of the Baltic nation-state of Lithuania, and have again published on this subject in Nova Religio and in Milda Ališauskiene and Ingo W. Schröder's anthology on Religious Diversity in Post-Soviet Society (Ashgate, 2012).  How did this research interest emerge, and is this an area that you continue to pursue ?

[MS]: Aha, now I see that you did come across my Baltic-oriented articles and writings. I have also published these two pieces: “Paganism-Inspired Folk Music, Folk Music-Inspired Paganism, and New Cultural Fusions in Lithuania and Latvia,” in Carole M. Cusack and Alex Norman (eds) Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Productions, 349-398. E.J Brill, 2012, and “Eastern Religions in Eastern Europe: Three Cases from Lithuania,” in Journal of Baltic Studies 44, 1 (2013), 49-82.

A Romuvan religious festival. Image by Mantas LT.
This is another area where academic interest led to religious exploration, but it also has a familial-ancestral component. My mother’s mother came to the USA from Lithuania in the period of WW I, and I have always been interested to know more of this obscure and mysterious little country that produced my maternal ancestors. In studying Indo-European myth and religion, I became aware that Lithuania has a unique status as the last European nation to convert to Christianity, and one whose language has archaic features that make it among the most closely related to Sanskrit, in terms of the Indo-European language family. I also read works by Marija Gimbutas which further stimulated my curiosity.

I went to Iceland, as noted above, in September of 1996, but before that, in February of the same year, I travelled to Lithuania for my first ever trip abroad. It was amazing to see the country in transition from Communist greyness to a more vivid form of life that celebrated its glorious past, as it was once one of the great European empires, both before and during its alliance with Poland from 1386-1795. When I travelled to Lithuania in February of 1996, I knew of the Pagan revival movement Romuva, and met the leader, the late Jonas Trinkūnas (1939 - 2014), who received me kindly and became a friend and mentor. He invited me to come speak at the inaugural meeting of the World Pagan Congress, soon to be renamed the World Congress of Ethnic Religions (WCER) in Vilnius, Lithuania in 1998 as an interested scholar, and I ended up participating in important discussions of the nature and purpose of the organization, which led me to many contacts with Pagans in different parts of Europe. I also attended and spoke at WCER meetings in 2004 and 2005. I also developed connections with Latvian Paganism and scholars that continue to the present.

[EDW]: In 2005, ABC-CLIO published your edited volume, Modern Paganism in World Cultures: World Perspectives, as part of their series on “Religion in Contemporary Cultures”. Containing contributions from the likes of Sabina Magliocco, Jenny Butler, Jenny Blain, as well as yourself, I personally think that it's a fantastic anthology, and that its great importance lies in that in focuses on forms of contemporary Paganism other than mainstream Wicca, instead looking at Druidry, Heathenry/Asatru, Stregheria, Romuva, and Ukrainian Native Faith. In doing so, it clearly departed from most previous publications in the field of Pagan studies, which had been very much Wicca-centric and which had often presented a picture of Paganism in which Wicca was seen almost as the normative case study for the movement. How did you come to edit this particular volume, and what do you see as its success and influence?

Book cover by ABC-Clio.
[MS]: One of the people on my dissertation committee, Frank Korom, great scholar of Indian religion and folklore from Boston University, invited me to come up with an idea for a volume on modern or neo-Paganism for a Contemporary Religion series he was overseeing for ABC-CLIO. He gave me free rein, and very much influenced by my Pagan contacts in Iceland, Lithuania and the WCER, I had a certain amount of disdain for Wicca as a less-grounded-in-ethnic culture, made-up-by-Gerald Gardner form of modern Paganism, which is one reason for the book not having a chapter on Wicca. I wasn’t anti-Wiccan, but I was simply not every interested in it at that point. I have more respect for it nowadays as I have come to see that every form of Paganism involves a certain amount of modern invention, and that Wicca has blazed a trail for other forms of Pagan religion to follow. In addition, I wanted to publicize interesting but little-known Pagan movements other than Wicca, which had already had a fair amount of ink spilled on its behalf.

[EDW]: You are open about being a Pagan practitioner yourself, and run a blog titled “The Political Pagan” in which you discuss many issues affecting the community from what you have termed “a leftist-liberal” perspective. What do you perceive as the importance of this venture, and of political activism within the Pagan movement itself ?

As noted earlier, the blog grew out of my personal frustrations with the largely conservative political orientation of American Ásatrú and a desire to discuss the issues involved and advocate for something more “liberal” and “leftist” with a larger audience.  I see what I am attempting here and what others are attempting in other ways, in other venues, as a battle for the heart and soul of Paganism. There is a very real tendency that constitutes a very dangerous temptation in many Pagan movements based in European myth and folklore to turn toward racism, even if a veiled form of racism, with an interpretation of European-derived Pagan heritage in essentially racist terms, seeing it as something that not only came from Europe, but is meant only for people of European descent, and which must be protected from mixing with peoples or traditions of non-European pedigree.

Dr. Strmiska's blog, "The Political Pagan".
My viewpoint is that there are beautiful folkloric and mythological elements of European culture—just as in other regions and culture-zones—that have a spiritual dimension which can provide a wonderful platform for modern (or should we say, post-modern) forms of religion, that can be relevant to modern (or post-modern) peoples for many reasons, out of which I would highlight two. Such a religion can provide a connection to the past and to cultural heritage, for those for whom that is meaningful or desired, and can also help connect spirituality to celebration and preservation of nature.  So I see a possibility of striking a balance between an ethnic heritage dimension and an environmental one. Note that I say, provide a platform, in that I see ancient ethnic traditions as  a floor, a basis, a starting point, NOT a ceiling, NOT an absolute limit. We take inspiration from the past and use old traditions to shape tools and perspectives to help us cope with the present and build for the future. And part of that has to be recognition of cultural and ethnic diversity AND cultural and ethnic mixing. There are problems with all of this, contradictions and pitfalls, but I am hoping to help articulate a forward-looking Paganism that has roots in the past, but is open to the future.

[EDW]: Have you got any other projects on the horizon that we should keep our eyes out for ?

[MS]: In 2010, I presented a paper at the American Academy of Religion annual conference entitled “Transatlantic Tensions in Norse Paganism: Left-Wing/Right-Wing Tendencies in America and Europe.” It included a survey of political attitudes among American Ásatrú followers which verified my hunch that the general political tendency in this population was conservative-libertarian. I have since conducted a similar survey among Ásatrú members in Iceland, and have plans to duplicate this in Sweden and maybe also Czech Republic, which does have Norse-Germanic Pagan groups along with Slavic and Celtic ones. When I finally finish the surveys, I will revise the conference paper noted above and probably publish several different versions, very likely in the Pomegranate or Nova Religio if not elsewhere. I am thinking about collecting my various Ásatrú-related articles into a book, also.

My main book project since 2010 has been something broader and more ambitious than my research on modern Paganism: a book entitled Unchristian Eastern Europe: Pagans, Jews and Gypsies, which will look at the presence and contributions of various non-Christian groups from Pagans to Jews to the Roma (Gypsies) and possibly also Tatars and Muslims to the social, cultural and spiritual fabric of Eastern European life over the centuries, from the Roman period onwards. I have spent much of the last four summers researching and writing the Jewish section, which will be the longest part of the book.  It has been fascinating to delve into the history of Kabbalism, Hasidism and the Haskalah, as well as controversial rebel Jewish leaders, Shabbetai Zevi and Jacob Frank. As I am not competent in the languages of many of the regions, groups and cultures I am dealing with, from Lithuania and Latvia in the Baltic region of Eastern Europe to the Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary in the more central part of Eastern Europe, this will be a somewhat derivative work, drawing mightily on secondary sources written in or translated into English.

The originality of the work will be its juxtaposition of Jew, Roma, Pagan and others, to demonstrate that Eastern Europe is NOT— and has never been—simply or wholly Catholic, as many have said of Poland, or strictly or exclusively Orthodox, as is often thought of Russia, but that alongside and underneath the Christian forms of religious thought and culture that have long dominated Eastern Europe, there run separate and subterranean streams of tradition and spirituality. That is to say, I want to make a historical case for Eastern Europe as a zone of religious and cultural diversity, and then move on to a final part of the book that will be rather tricky, but hopefully productive. This will be to note that Eastern Europe has lost some of this diversity in the last few centuries, with the rise of ethno-nationalism in the nineteenth century pushing for single-ethnicity nation states, with the exclusionary, jingoistic logic of “Poland for the Poles,”  “Hungary for the Hungarians,”  “Lithuania for the Lithuanians,” and so on. The most awful form of this impulse was of course the Third Reich with its mass exterminations of Jews, Roma and, to a lesser extent, Slavs, in favor of a single-ethnicity German Empire. This still lives on today in the continuing cruelty inflicted on the Roma across Eastern (and Western) Europe, reviving patches of anti-Semitism here and there, and a new phenomenon of anti-Islamism. My final analysis will ask the question, where should Eastern Europe go from here? To reclaim the cultural and religious diversity of the past, evident in such political groupings as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or to continue the process of ethno-nationalist narrowness and exclusion? To reach out to Roma and immigrant Muslims, or seek to expel or exterminate them? To revive ideas of Christianized versions of national identity that favor the suppression of minority and alternative religions, or embrace religious diversity and let go of Christian domination? Along with religious diversity comes cultural and social diversity, of course.

Paganism, while not being a majority religion anywhere in Eastern Europe, though surprisingly strong in supposedly totally Catholic Poland, and also present in the supposedly thoroughly non-religious Czech Republic, has an interesting role to play in this debate. It is often imbued with ethno-nationalistic pride and impulses, and it too must struggle with diversity, including acknowledging Christianity as a valid and enduring religion and noting that Christianity has absorbed a fair number of Pagan elements over the centuries. How Paganism negotiates its position in Eastern European countries will, I think, be something of a bellwether for the overall direction of Eastern Europe either toward a positive embrace of diversity and an expanding sense of common humanity across ethnic and religious boundaries, or a poisonous turning inwards toward ethnic narrowness and social exclusion.

I envision this book being a useful undergraduate text for courses on Eastern European history or European diversity. It is a massive project that exceeds my capacities, but isn’t that the best kind of project to work on? Teaching at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic this fall, NOT in Prague but the much less crowded, far more cozy, and far less expensive city of Brno, which is just two hours north of the great Hungarian metropolis of Budapest, I hope to have time to write and ample opportunity to meet with Czechs and Hungarians of different sorts: Pagans, Jews, Gypsies and others! There is, for example, a Roma-Buddhist organization in Hungary that I learned of several years ago called Ja Bhim. It sought to empower young Roma with a more positive sense of identity by focusing on the ancient Indian roots of the Roma and then highlighting Buddhism as a form of religion opposed to all social exclusion. Ja Bhim was operating schools for young Roma, with some success, but fell afoul of the right-wing Hungarian national government and lost funding. I have lost track of this group but hope to visit them and learn more. This is the kind of thing I hope to look into while in the region and include in my book.

[EDW]: Having been actively involved in the academic field of Pagan studies for a decade and a half now, I'd like to ask you where you thought that it was heading, particularly given the threats that it faces from university funding cuts. On a related note, how do you think that the field will cope given that it has come under criticism from Markus Altena Davidsen for working under a religionist perspective that places too great an emphasis on emic perspectives ? In particular, what do you see as the future for the study of Paganisms rooted in Northern, Central, and Eastern Europe that embrace a national or ethnic approach to the movement ?

[MS]: I think Pagan Studies is entering a renaissance, with new scholars coming on board who are theoretically grounded, ethnographically talented and methodologically astute. As examples, let me mention two books that I consulted on and which have been published in the last several years, Mariya Lesiv’s The Return of Ancestral Gods: Modern Ukrainian Paganism as an Alternative Vision for a Nation (Montreal: McGill University Press, 2013) and Jennifer Snook’s American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015). Both volumes show a growing maturity in thought and method for our little sub-field, combining fine ethnographic fieldwork with deep historical understanding and probing sociological analysis. [EDW: Having read both works over the past year, I would strongly recommend that Albion Calling readers check them out!]

As to Davidsen’s “scandalous” broadside against Pagan Studies, I do not see the need to over react. He clearly has not seen ALL Pagan Studies scholarship, or he would not have made the sweeping and dismissive generalizations that he did, but he did raise some valid points that are constructive to consider, such as a possible over reliance on the emic point of view. I myself made some similar criticisms back in 2005 in a review of Researching Paganisms, a volume of methodological essays edited by Jenny Blain, Douglas Ezzy, and Graham Harvey [EDW: The latter interviewed here back in February 2014]. I argued then that overuse of one’s own personal Pagan history as a point of reference or focus of discussion could be a problem if it prevents a more balanced view of the situation that would or should take in others’ views both inside and outside the religious group under discussion. Too much emic can be a bad thing, and I would indeed agree with Davidsen on that. However, I don’t agree with what he seems to propose as a corrective to an emic overload, which, as far as I understand his thinking, is a return to a rather stale, old-fashioned, outmoded, “totally objective,” strictly etic form of observation and analysis which robotically reports “scientific” facts and eschews any discussion of the personal viewpoint and position of the writer. That is going too far the other way, in my opinion. I think good scholarship on modern Paganism or any other form of living religion or indeed any social phenomenon should engage with both the emic and the etic side of things, which creates a productive if at times uncomfortable tension that is well worth the trouble.

I do feel that is entirely valid and indeed very valuable for an author of a Religious Studies article to declare their personal religious viewpoint, whether Pagan, Christian, Rastafarian or whatever else. When this is included, the reader can keep that in mind when trying to understand and appreciate the author’s presentation of the religious group under discussion, and be better informed of the overall situation. However, I caution against scholars getting lost in personal reflections of their own experience to where all they talk about is themselves. If you feel that need, go write your autobiography! “Now it can be told….!” Our personal religious experience is a valid piece of data to include in a Religious Studies analysis, but it should be just one datum among others.

I also realize, and think it very important to point out, that for some young and budding scholars who are just now coming up the path in their academic careers, it may be professionally and personally injurious for them to declare a Pagan affiliation of any sort in any published work or public venue, and allowance should be made that sometimes. It is simply not possible for every writer on Pagan topics to describe their personal religious situation or identity. We do want Pagan Studies scholars to be able to gain academic employment and contribute to Religious Studies from positions of strength and security, and in a world where Paganism is a tiny religious minority, asking every Pagan to “come out” and be vocal about their personal religiosity may be more counterproductive than constructive.

There is growing Pagan Studies and New Religious Movement scholarship in Central and Eastern Europe, and I have met a good many fine scholars there, in Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. On a personal note, I was very much moved when I visited the Czech Republic in 2012 and found that portions my book Modern Paganism in World Cultures had been translated into Czech and circulated on the internet there, virtual samizdat style, and was being read with interest by both scholars and practitioners of Paganism. This is one reason I am going to the Czech Republic!

Overall, I think Pagan Studies is doing fine, and debates and discussions of proper method, focus and scope such as were advanced by Davidsen are to be welcomed, even if we do not always like the tone or style of approach. We are a young field, and we will no doubt do well to listen and respond to intelligent questions and critiques as we find our way forward.

I also feel strongly that Paganism will also continue to grow in many different forms, and I worry deeply about the divide between the more “right-wing” ethnic-tribal Pagans and the more “left-wing” open-universalist and environmentally-oriented ones: Stephen McNallen versus Starhawk, as it were. Obviously, this has become my main preoccupation in my own studies of and involvement in Paganism. It should be noted, however, that all religions face these splits and variations, and this could even be taken as a measure, albeit a sad one, of the growing maturity of the Pagan movement. Consider, in the American context, the pro-slavery Southern Christians of the past versus the Civil Rights leaders that grew out of the African-American Christian community in the 1950s and 1960s. Consider the historical split between Sunnis and Shi’ites still roiling the Muslim world and generating fresh bloodshed today, as well as the frequent persecution of Sufis, or the divide between Orthodox Christians and Old Believers in Russia, or that between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. The founders of Hasidism in the late 18th century were beaten and thrown into prison—by other Jews.

Religion is always a fight.

[EDW]: Dr. Strmiska, thank you very much for your illuminating comments here at Albion Calling – I wish you all the best with your forthcoming time in the Czech Republic and your forthcoming projects!

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

CFP: "The Supernatural in the Peripheries: Britain and Ireland" at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland

I’ve been asked to share this call for papers for an upcoming conference to be held at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast, which will be on the subject of “The Supernatural in the Peripheries: Britain and Ireland”. It looks set to be an interesting event, and for those who would like to take part, abstracts need to be submitted by 24th August 2015 to uusupernatural@gmail.com. The conference itself is to be held not long after, on Friday 18th September 2015. Organised by Cara Hanley and Jodie Shevlin, the keynote speaker will be Professor Richard Jenkins of the University of Sheffield.


Saturday, 25 July 2015

The "Magic and Supernatural in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods" Conference: My Reflections

I’ve just returned from a week in the Welsh capital of Cardiff, where on Tuesday 21st July I attended a one-day academic conference on the subject of “Magic and the Supernatural in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods”. Held at Cardiff University, the event was organised by the postgraduate researchers Mark Truesdale, Martha Baldon, Alison Harthill, and Darren Freebury-Jones, who together span the fields of history and literature studies. This sold out event was a wonderful opportunity for scholars and other interested persons from all over the UK – and indeed beyond – to get together and hear about some of the latest research in these interconnected fields. Given the large number of papers being presented at the conference, dual sessions were held, meaning that I was only able to see just under half of all the speakers. Unfortunately that means that here I will not be able to make reference to every paper presented, but hope that there might be other attendees who could also publish their reflections of the event, thus providing a more rounded picture of it for those who, although interested, could not be in attendance.


The conference was held at Cardiff's Sir Martin Evans Building.
Image by Seth Wales, from Wikipedia.
The conference kicked off with a keynote talk from Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol, an eminent historian and specialist in the Early Modern period who has also published seminal work on the history of modern Pagan Witchcraft (and for those of you who haven’t seen it, Professor Hutton kindly gave an interview for Albion Calling last year). Titled “The Western Magical Tradition”, Hutton took us back to the place of magic and witchcraft in the ancient Near Eastern societies of the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Hittites, before discussing the distinction between magic and religion held to in the Greco-Roman world and the ways in which these historic approaches and sources impacted on European views of magic into the Early Modern period. This is partly based on research for a forthcoming book which I look forward to tremendously.

Next up was “Panel I: Folk and Learned Magic”, chaired by Tom George, which opened with my paper on “The Anglo-Saxon Cunning Woman: New Perspectives from History and Archaeology”, which was based in large part on my earlier master’s thesis. I was concerned that the presentation of the paper might have come across as a little rushed (after all, it is difficult to fit all that information into a twenty-minute slot!) but it certainly seemed to pique the interest of various attendees and many people told me that they had found it to be both enjoyable and interesting, which was a relief. I was followed by Dr. Debbie Lea of INTO Manchester with her paper on “Sieves, Shears and a Swallow” in which she discussed the activities of several cunning folk in Early Modern Lancashire (and surprisingly enough, neither Dr Lee nor any of those who asked her questions mentioned Lancashire's famous Pendle Witches).  Rounding off this section was Cardiff’s own Alison Harthill with “To Obtain a Horse: Necromancy and Fantasy” in which she looked at the place of fantasy in Early Modern grimoires, bringing up the interesting and innovative comparison between the ways in which such books of magic may have been read and the ways in which comic books are often read today.

Baldung's Hexen, a woodcut of 1508.
Chaired by Mark Truesdale, “Panel IV: Philosophy and Spirituality” kicked off with Jonathan Jancsary of the University of Innsbruck on “Dreams and Imagination as First Insights into the Spiritual Spheres”, an examination of the role of dreams in the ideas of Medieval Arab philosopher-come-Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi. Jancsary was then followed by Clare Fitzpatrick of Birkbeck, University of London who examined the ideas regarding an immortal soul that were expounded in the writings of Early Modern philosopher and Christian apologist Henry More in her paper on “Apparitions of the Dead, Visions, Monstrous Births and Other “Extraordinary and Miraculous” Phenomena”. Panel VI, “Body and Medicine”, was chaired by Michael Fulton and opened with Cat Stiles of the University of Bristol on “Popular Magic: The Anglo-Saxon Charms and the Line Between Magic, Medicine and Religion”. Moving from the Early Medieval and into the Early Modern, we then had Nailya Shamgunova of the University of Cambridge providing a paper on “An Unnatural Sin? The Concept of Nature in Anglophone Discourse in South East Asia in the 17th Century”, the focus of which was on John Bulwer and the way in which he (erroneously) interpreted penis rings as a means of preventing sodomy among the indigenous peoples of Thailand. Although not fitting so neatly into the “Magic and the Supernatural” theme of the conference as other papers, it was still a fascinating talk and one of my favourite contributions to the day.

Panel VIII was chaired by Isabelle Valade and titled “Witches and Place”. It opened with Warwick University’s Paula McBride on “Magic and Witchcraft in the Early Modern Midlands” and involved a discussion of her exciting first-hand research into the Early Modern witch trials of that English region. From there we moved our attention to Spain with Birkbeck’s Sander Berg on “Witches and Watermelons: Attitudes to Magic in Spanish Golden Age Literature”, in which he focused on the appearance of sorcery in the work of María de Zayas. The day was then rounded off with a fascinating plenary paper by Dr Darren Oldridge of the University of Worcester on the place of fairies – among them imps, hobgoblins, and Robin Goodfellow – in the Early Modern imagination.

A big part of the importance of this event was that it brought together historians, archaeologists (or at least this archaeologist), scholars of literature, and scholars of philosophy, all of whom were united by their thematic fascination for magic and the supernatural in the Medieval and Early Modern periods. Covering not only the witch trials of the Early Modern, which have long been one of the only respectable ways for historians of this period to study magical beliefs, it also included contributions on the practices of folk magic, folkloric beliefs in supernatural entities, alchemy, and learned esoteric and philosophical beliefs regarding supernatural phenomena. It was thus a great space to learn about each other’s research, although because the question-and-answer sessions were quite brief there wasn’t the opportunity to engage in in-depth group discussions, as for instance I experienced at last year’s “New Antiquities” conference at the Free University of Berlin. It was nevertheless an incredibly interesting and well organised event, and I met a lot of interesting people who I hope to see again at similar events in future. Events such as these are a very important space for the advancement of scholarship, both in terms of exchanging ideas and mentally recognising that those of us who study such "eccentric" fields are not alone. For that, the organisers and contributors have my thanks and my congratulations at putting on such a great event.