Friday, 11 July 2014

The highs and lows of being a scholarly book reviewer...

Book reviewing has played a significant role in my academic trajectory so far. Over the past few years, I have published reviews of various tomes, both academic and non-academic, in such peer-reviewed journals as The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism, Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture, and the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review (I keep a list updated here). Book reviews appearing in such journals play an important role in the world of academia, allowing time-strapped scholars to gain a quick, critical overview of a publication that they themselves simply don't have the time to read. It also has many benefits for the reviewer themselves; not only do they gain copies of works that might otherwise be out of their price range (and let's face it, academia is hardly a path to prosperity), but it enables them to deepen their knowledge of a subject and develop skills in critical analysis that should aid them when they come to authoring their own papers and books. I would also argue that it can benefit a book's author too, as they can gain constructive criticism from their knowledgeable peers, thus enabling them to recognise any flaws that their work might suffer from and hopefully avoid them in future. At the same time, they can gain praise and acknowledgement for all their hard work, which is an emotional boost if nothing else. And then, of course, there are the benefits to the publisher, who are provided with extra publicity for their publication (and remember: all publicity is good publicity), which I would hope can encourage sales, either by individuals or, more likely, by university libraries.

Of course, this all means that the good book reviewer must do two distinct things. First, they must offer a thorough overview of the work in question, outlining its structure and its main arguments and/or findings. This is primarily for other scholars, who probably won't have the time to read every publication that is relevant to their field of research. Second, the reviewer must critique the work, focusing in particular on any perceived flaws that are present in its evidence and argument, as well as in other areas such as its readability and quality of prose. This is for both the wider scholarly community and the book's author themselves. When I do my reviewing, I always make a point of trying to highlight what I see as both good and bad aspects of every book. I never want to author a review that is wholly negative or solely positive; I'll either look for the silver lining in a grey sky or point out how a lovely sunny day could possibly be improved. Connected to this, I'll try to see a positive aspect to something that might otherwise be seen as a flaw; for instance, I might have criticisms of a book for not meeting the standards of academic scholarship, but then I'll try and turn that around by pointing out that this particular work would be good for a non-academic audience!


However, one of the more difficult aspects of book reviewing is receiving responses from the book's original authors. This has now happened to me twice, in each instance from authors who do not work within the confines of academia. This can be a really awkward and uncomfortable situation, particularly if the authors are not happy with my review. I have been fortunate in that one of those who contacted me was doing so in order to offer their thanks for what was a rather glowing review of their work; they also informed me that they fully accepted my few constructive criticisms. However, in the second instance, the response that I received was a little colder; this author did not accept the criticisms that I had expressed of their work, and sent me an email to inform me of this fact.  As a writer myself, I can certainly appreciate that we invest a lot of time and emotional attachment in our work, and thus it can be disheartening to learn of others' criticisms of it, particularly if we do not think that those criticisms are valid. However, it put me in a somewhat uncomfortable position; I've gone to the effort of reviewing the book (in a few cases having paid for the work myself in order to help a fledgling scholarly journal out), and have always sought to be honest and fair-minded, and thus don't particularly want to be drawn into a protracted argument or debate on the issue. Furthermore, when I signed up to review the work, I never expected to be put face-to-face (or email-to-email) with the author themselves; that wasn't part of the deal. But is it fair for an author to actively challenge, or even contact, the book reviewer ? In the wider sphere of academia, there seems to be an unspoken rule that it is largely deemed bad practice to do so, although should this apply to those operating within the realms of independent scholarship too ? I don't have answers to these questions, but I felt the personal need to air them nonetheless.

Book reviewing is part and parcel of academic life. Although I have encountered scholars who find it tedious and of little value, I have also met just as many who deem it an important opportunity, whether you are on the lower rungs of the academic ladder (like myself) or have worked yourself up into the higher echelons. For any aspiring academics and/or established independent scholars out there who might be reading this, I would certainly recommend the act of book reviewing to both improve their own literary and critical thinking skills as well as to contribute to the wider world of scholarship.

Monday, 7 July 2014

An Interview with Prof. Ronald Hutton

This week here at Albion Calling I have the very great honour of presenting an interview with a man whose work has inspired both myself and many, many others; Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol in southwest England. One of Britain's foremost historians, his prodigious scholarly output has ranged from the tumultuous events of seventeenth-century England to the pre-Christian belief systems of the British Isles, and from Western understandings of Siberian "shamanisms" to the early history of the new religious movement commonly known as Wicca. The author of at least fifteen books and many other papers and book chapters, he has also found the time to present a number of documentaries and a recent television series on Britain's lesser-known museums, as well as serving a term as a Commissioner of English Heritage. In previous interviews conducted with Necropolis Now (here and here) he has discussed his research and relationship with the contemporary Pagan movement but here offers us a fascinating overview into his wider life and career.

EDW: At times in pieces that you have written, especially one of the essays in
Witches, Druids and King Arthur, you have referred briefly to your upbringing and its influence on your later work. Would you be prepared to enlarge on that subject here?


RH: Yes. I was brought up by my mother, after my father died when I was a small child. She was a delightful and admirable person, of whom I was very fond, but also rather unworldly, and in increasingly fragile health. As a result, I spent most of my formative years trying to support and preserve her, a struggle which I finally lost as she died when I was a student. One of her most significant influences on me was that she was herself a Pagan, of a recognisable Victorian and Edwardian kind. She was deeply influenced by the Greek and Roman classics, regarded the Olympian deities as the natural divinities of the world, had a sense of a single archaic mother goddess as standing behind them, and felt an immanent divinity in nature. She never practised any acts of worship or other rites, and her attitudes were entirely literary; and indeed there was a large nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature to support them. My affection for them, and for her, gave me a sympathy for Pagans of the mid and late twentieth century kind, such as Wiccans, when I encountered them from my teens onward. It also, of course, left me with a knowledge and affection for the Victorian and Edwardian literature which had inspired her. More generally, my relationship with my mother gave me a great liking for women and a preference for their company. It also left me without any of three great formative influences which defined the attitudes of my friends: Christianity, patriarchy and parent-child conflict. As a result I lack a lot of the instinctual assumptions and responses manifested by most of my generation, which has both advantages and disadvantages for a writer. 

EDW: Having obtained a BA and MA in History from Cambridge University’s Pembroke College and then a DPhil in the subject from Oxford University’s St John’s College, you went on to an Oxford fellowship at Magdalen College and then permanent employment at the University of Bristol in 1981, starting off as a Lecturer and subsequently working your way up to a Readership and finally a Professorship. Was the academy something that you had wanted to be a part of from youth, or was this desire only a later emergence? What, in particular, were the formative influences that led you in this particular direction?

RH: I always wanted to get to university, because that was the gateway to a well-paid job, for somebody with no family contacts in any occupation. Cambridge was the best for somebody growing up, as I did, in the east of England. My father’s death and my mother’s ill health meant that money was tight, and so I had to work my way up through the state school system, step by step, eventually winning a scholarship to Cambridge when I was seventeen. I did not, however, imagine that an academic career would be a viable one for me, as posts in it were so few at that time and dependent on absolutely stellar university examination results. So I prepared for other professions, such as the Home Civil Service or journalism, until my actual undergraduate examination scores, to my surprise, began to put me within reach of the academic ladder. This really seemed an impossible dream come true: to be able to make a living out of what I genuinely best enjoyed doing, and had expected would remain a hobby. I have been very lucky. 

EDW: Growing up, you juggled the twin interests of history and archaeology, being a member of your local archaeological society, taking part in excavations at Pilsdon Pen, Ascott-under-Wychwood chambered tomb, and Hen Domen castle, and subsequently attending Glyn Daniel's archaeological lectures at Cambridge. Those familiar with your two books on the subject of pre-Christian belief systems in Britain, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy (Blackwell, 1991) and Pagan Britain (Yale University Press, 2013), will be well aware that you still retain a very keen interest in developments within British archaeology, and are comfortable enough with the subject to publish works of an interdisciplinary character. What are your feelings regarding the relationship and co-operation between the two disciplines, with particular regard for the study of prehistoric and protohistoric religions?

Hutton's two books on ancient pre-Christian belief systems in Britain and the
Atlantic Archipelago; copyright Blackwell and Yale University Press respectively.
RH: I don’t think that anything that I have written has been genuinely interdisciplinary – I am very much a historian who uses archaeological data – and I do not know of any colleague who balances equally between archaeology and history in her or his work. There should in theory be at least a perfect complementarity between them, as history is essentially concerned with textual evidence and archaeology with material evidence. This means that prehistory is wholly dependent on archaeological material, and that in later historic periods the archaeology can be interpreted mostly in accordance with the written evidence. It is in the earlier historic periods that the material and the textual data need in theory to be brought together as a single body of evidence, but this is more awkward than may appear. The two disciplines have totally different personnel and cultural, practical and philosophical underpinnings: history is unequivocally an art and a craft, but archaeology is pulled between claims that it is also an art and counter-assertions that it is actually a social, or even a hard, science. The skills needed for each are different. In practice, historians rarely use archaeological evidence unless the material excavated is a text, while archaeologists in the past interpreted their finds too much in accordance with the assertions of ancient and medieval writers, and lately some have swung too much in the other direction, towards denying the relevance of written testimony at all. It is an uneasy relationship. 

EDW: Your early academic publications The Royalist War Effort (Routledge, 1982), The Restoration (Clarendon, 1985), Charles the Second (Clarendon, 1989), and The British Republic (Palgrave Macmillan, 1990) – were devoted to Britain in the seventeenth century, looking at the Civil War, Cromwell's Commonwealth, and the subsequent Restoration of the monarchy. More recently you have published on the subject with Debates in Stuart History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and A Brief History of Britain 1485–1660 (Robinson, 2011). What inspired this particular interest, and why did you pursue it through your MA and DPhil? Is it something that you intend to return to in future? 

RH: The English Civil War and the following English Revolution were very prominent in national memory in the years 1966-1973, when I was a teenager; perhaps because those were a period of intense cultural change, when basic questions of national identity were up for review as they had been (more violently) in the earlier period. There were lots of pop histories and novels, and two memorable films, produced about this bit of history during those years, and the first and largest historical re-enactment society in Britain, the Sealed Knot, was founded to celebrate it. I consumed them all once my interest had been activated by a school project and by realising how much the war and revolution ran through the stories of the historic monuments which I systematically visited during vacations. It became an abiding passion, and had I not become a historian I would probably have written a series of (not very good) historical novels about the Civil War period in my spare time. Instead I wrote my doctoral thesis and first book about it; which was exactly the right choice as it was a focus of intense interest among professional historians at that time, and so an excellent launch-pad for a career. I followed up this beginning with three more books, but was increasingly aware that I had always been interested in other areas of history as well, in which I might be more of a pioneer now that my career was securely established, and so I went into them instead. I still write about early modern Britain, as you have noted, and intend to return there in the next book after my current one, which will probably be a study of Oliver Cromwell. I have also stayed loyal to the Sealed Knot, and am now its Vice President for life, having worked my way up to that level from the ranks. 

EDW: From your studies on seventeenth-century history, you went on to focus on British folk festivals, resulting in the publication of The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400–1700 (Oxford University Press, 1994) and The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford University Press, 1996), the latter of which has probably become one of the most important and oft-cited publications in British folkloristics, period. What was it that led to this avenue of your research and how did you feel about the intersection between history and folkloristics that it entailed? 

RH: An interest in folk culture, and especially in those aspects of it which allegedly descended from pre-Christian times, was one feature of the counter-culture which flourished in Britain around 1970, and of which I was a part: the folk club was often the local centre of that counter-culture. Such an interest united easily with my affection for ancient paganism, and when I was in my mid-teens I drafted the plan and filled in much of the material for a book on seasonal festivals, which almost twenty years later became The Stations of the Sun (as a teenager I also drafted a book on Neolithic tomb-shrines which provided some of the material for the one on ancient British paganism which I published in 1991). In the intervening period, scholarly folklorists almost completely changed their attitudes to the subject, from assuming that virtually all folk customs derived from pagan rites to realising that very few did; and my work reflected that shift and gave me more interesting work to do as a historian, in trying to work out how customs had actually developed and mutated. Folklore is, however, a different discipline from history, having more in common with the social sciences, and is in any case hardly represented in the British academic system. I don’t really think, therefore, that my work actually represented ‘an intersection between history and folkloristics’ so much as a historian using data partly generated by folklore studies. 

EDW: Although often eclipsed by your research and publications in other areas, your work on the shamanism(s) of Siberia is something that I have found to be particularly interesting, and given that it is your only work that isn't Britain-centred, it stands out as a somewhat unusual part of your oeuvre. Your book Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination (Hambledon and London, 2001) is an excellent introduction to the subject, and I am aware that you have previously published a popular guide on the subject, The Shamans of Siberia (Isle of Avalon Press, 1993). What is it about this particular part of the world and its magico-religious beliefs that fascinates you, and how did you go about researching a spirituality that is all the way on the other side of the Eurasian continent, in an incredibly culturally and linguistically diverse region?

Hutton's Shamans.
Copyright Hambledon and London.
RH: The two publications that you mention are very different in kind. The ‘popular guide’ was a lecture that I gave at Glastonbury to raise money for an institution there, the leaders of which then asked to publish and sell it locally in order to raise more. It was never intended to attract serious scholarly attention; but the later book was, and remains an essential component of my evolving body of work. My willingness to write on the subject was propelled by two developments in the years around 1990. One was the growing interest in shamanism as a major aspect of British alternative forms of spirituality. The other, and more important, was Carlo Ginzburg’s promotion of a universal archaic shamanism as a key influence on early modern images of witchcraft. Both drew ultimately on a model of shamanism developed by Mircea Eliade in the mid twentieth century, which I found both inspiring and limiting, as I did the works which had embraced it. I believed that a tighter definition was needed to make sense of differing regional patterns in European folk beliefs concerning the supernatural, based on Siberia which was the region that had produced the term and concept of the shaman.

For a British scholar I was unusually well equipped to suggest one, in that my mother had come from a Russian family, and her mother told me much about the Tsarist Russia of her own youth. This made Siberia quite familiar to me as Russia’s huge back garden, and my own travels in the USSR in the 1980s enabled me to study the relics of Siberian shamanism in museums and talk to old people who had experienced shamanic rites. My work on the subject therefore became a vital component of my slow accumulation of data and expertise for a major study of the folkloric roots of European witchcraft beliefs, which is currently coming to fruition. I can usually identify a moment when I decide to write a particular book, and that on shamanism, eventually published in 2001, was conceived in a rural pub, at Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, over a lunch of bread, cheese and farmhouse cider in August 1990. I was rereading Eliade, and suddenly realised that I could do something distinctive with the subject. 


EDW: More recently, you have turned your attention to the thorny issue of the Druids with your books The Druids: A History (Hambledon Continuum, 2007) and Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain (Yale University Press, 2009). However, rather than simply going over the little evidence that we do have for these magico-religious specialists of the Western European Iron Age, as many others have already done, you have provided an analysis of how they have actually been re-interpreted through history, from the Early Medieval to the 1990s. What drove you to investigate this particular subject and to author both an academically-oriented and popular-oriented book on the basis of your research? 

Hutton's two books on the Druids: The Druids (2007) was aimed at
a popular audience, while Blood and Mistletoe (2009) was
academically-oriented.
Copyright Hambledon Continuum and Yale UP respectively.
RH: Once more a confluence of modern spirituality and scholarly trajectory inspired these books. Druidry had become a major component of British Paganism during the early 1990s, and I had been befriended by a number of leading Druids as a result of my publications; so it was enticing to write about their tradition. More important, to deal with Druids as an aspect of the British imagination since 1500 was a natural offshoot of my existing work on the modern reception of images and ideas gained from ancient paganism. It was an especially important, rich and extensive field, which plugged into all sorts of political, cultural and social issues in British history. 

Furthermore, I was aware by the opening of the 2000s of the damage that my association with the study of modern witchcraft had done to my academic career, and thought that my engagement with a different subject – though still related to the reception of ancient paganism – would reduce this association in the minds of professional colleagues; which it certainly did. My reason for publishing two books was that I wanted to see if instead – as had been my habit – of trying to fuse heavyweight scholarly research and popular appeal into the same book, I would split them between two different works. I don’t think that the tactic really worked, as the bigger and more scholarly one still stole the limelight from the other, so I abandoned it thereafter. 

EDW: What projects have you got on the horizon for which we should be keeping an eye out?

RH: I have a big one on the go at present, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, of a comprehensive study of the concept of the witch, in a global, ancient and folkloric setting, to understand more fully the context of the early modern witch trials. This is of course inspired by the work of Continental historians and folklorists such as Carlo Ginzburg, Éva Pócs, Wolfgang Behringer and Gustav Henningsen, and as such is an approach which has been much less favoured by English-speaking counterparts. It will, however, inevitably have some differences from the work of these Continental colleagues, in making a more comprehensive survey of the evidence, emphasising regional differences much more heavily, and relying less on modern folklore collections to plug gaps in earlier evidence. I have six people on my team, the others consisting of a distinguished Classicist, Dr Genevieve Liveley, a medievalist, Dr Louise Wilson, and three research students, working respectively on Italy, male witches and the animal familiar. Together we should produce three books, mine being the largest and the broadest in its scope, and three doctoral theses with resulting spin-off publications, in three to four years. 

EDW: Much has been said about your relationship with contemporary Paganism, and in particular Wicca, although in contrast basically nothing has been commented on your dealings with other world religions. Given that you were born in India, I would be particularly interested to learn of your relationship with the religions of the subcontinent.

RH: I don’t have much of a personal relationship with them, though I know them fairly well and have interacted with both at times, especially on my travels. I find Hinduism perfectly familiar and attractive as an eastern extension of ancient European paganism. Buddhism appeals to me rather less, as I am too fond of this world and life, but I admire the compassion which it encourages in some of its adherents. 

EDW: Are your relations with Christianity, Islam or Judaism more important?

RH: Certainly they have impinged on me more often, both because my travels have taken in more countries where they are significant forces, and because of their impact on my own society. I know their core texts, especially those of Judaism and Christianity, and of course Christianity has been the dominant and defining faith of my own society. My relationship with all three might be described as one of benevolent detachment. In the case of Christianity, however, my attitudes take almost an opposite form to that propounded by most liberal humanists, which is to suggest that Jesus Christ was at the least a wonderful person and teacher, but that his message was distorted and deformed by established Churches. I remain deeply impressed by the achievements to which many Christians have been inspired by their religion, in art, architecture, literature and acts of courage and generosity, while finding its original texts completely unsympathetic and the figure of Jesus deeply unattractive. That is the reason why I could never be a Christian myself, and of course the influence of the religion is totally missing from my personal background. My affection and respect for many individual Christians, now and in the past, is therefore propelled by what they have managed to make of what seems to me such unpromising original material. I am perfectly aware that the same religion has also inspired people to appalling acts of atrocity, and that its basic claim to sole truth and goodness can been deeply problematic in a multi-cultural, multi-faith society. On the other hand, some of the finest Christian literature, art and architecture has been produced by societies which were also among the most murderously intolerant, so there is no straightforward opposition of good and evil in the story. I have little in common with people of any kind who instinctually view the cosmos as polarised between right and wrong beliefs, causes and groups, both in the past and in the present. The world seems to me always to have been a messier sort of place. 

EDW: Most recently you have been making regular appearances on British television, presenting the 12-episode series Curiosities (Yesterday, 2013), in which you visited various lesser known museums around Britain, as well as the documentary A Very British Witchcraft (Channel 4, 2013), which offered a biographical account of Gerald Gardner and the foundation of Gardnerian Wicca. Aside from these ventures, you also make semi-regular appearances in a wide array of documentaries, most recently Tudor Monastery Farm, and have become a familiar face on British television. How did you get involved in the world of TV and what do you see as the importance of such appearances for public outreach? 

RH: I have been making television appearances since the mid-1980s, and got essential broadcasting experience before then on radio stations, first local and then national, like a lot of academics who have become prominent in the media. During my teens I regularly acted on stage, and this gave me an ability to speak concisely and clearly and to be directed by others, both of which come in useful when broadcasting. Television companies and crews are very unstable units, and so a straightforward continuity of reputation was difficult to build for a part-time media person like myself. I could get a deluge of work for a few years and then little for a few after that, and often commissioning editors would want me to present a series but were unable to find a good enough proposal for one from a company. It has taken thirty years for me to become the ‘go-to’ historian on a range of subjects for most directors. I enjoy being interviewed, because I can give spontaneous answers and turn up on set for a few hours of work. Presenting is less fun, because I often have to speak scripted lines, and the amount of time that needs to be blocked out to film a one-hour documentary, let alone a series, cannot usually be taken off from my university duties. Television and radio, however, are marvellous ways of communicating history and prehistory to the general public, and especially the first: I reckon that two minutes of prime television time is worth an hour on radio or a weekly column in a newspaper. I also feel a debt to the mass media, in that my school, though it did have one very good history teacher, simply did not have the resources to train me for the broad approach to the past needed to pass the Cambridge entrance examination. I did that myself by reading popular history books borrowed from the public library, and by watching as much television history and prehistory as I could. Without those media I would have no academic career, and I feel obliged to give a lot back to them in gratitude. 

EDW: From October 2009 to September 2013, you served as a Commissioner of English Heritage. How did you find yourself in this prestigious role, and what did the position actually entail?
 
The English Heritage logo
RH: English Heritage is the public organisation, answerable to the central government, which protects the physical remains of the nation’s past, both by dealing with apparent threats to buildings and landscapes from neglect and development and by caring for over four hundred properties itself, including Stonehenge and the best bits of Hadrian’s Wall. The commission on which I served is the governing body of the whole thing, forming all policies for it and taking all major decisions, and I was the historian upon it for that term, being preceded by Sir David Cannadine. I applied because English Heritage itself invited me to do so, as a result of my combination of an academic profile with one in public service and the mass media. I was not the only person whom it approached, and other notable scholars applied independently, so the competition was serious. I think that I won the position when interviewed (by top civil servants and a leading archaeologist) because I had first-hand knowledge of all the properties which English Heritage manages. Again, my teenage activities were crucial here, because in my school holidays I had systematically visited all of them, and all those in Wales, when they were still directly run by the government.

I had a wonderful time during my four-year term, not least because the quality of my fellow commissioners was so high, and their reputations and achievements in a range of national activities so much more impressive than mine. None the less, I pulled my weight, and was rapidly appointed to chair the Remuneration Committee of English Heritage, which discusses pay arrangements, and the Designation Review Committee, which advises the government in controversial cases where buildings or sites have either been granted or refused protection as historic. My period of service was an exceptionally difficult one for the whole organisation, because the government cut its funding so severely, as part of the emergency measures taken to combat the national economic crash, that it effectively ceased to be viable in its traditional form. We eventually agreed to propose its division into two halves, one to become financially self-supporting, which at time of writing is yet to be implemented. At the end of my service as a commissioner, I was immediately appointed to two new public positions, as chair of the Blue Plaques Panel, which decides which historic figures should be honoured with memorials placed on their former homes in London, and as an academic advisor to the Royal Armouries, the national museum of arms and armour from all ages. 


EDW: You’ve now been operating within the study of history for thirty-eight years, and that being the case, I'd be interested to hear your take on where the discipline is headed, particularly given the current cut-backs to higher education. More specifically, it would be good if you could articulate your views on where those areas in which you have taken a research interest – such as Pagan studies, the study of shamanism, and the study of witchcraft – are headed.

RH: History itself is in a very strong position in the educational system of the United Kingdom, as it is so popular amongst school and university students. This is because many people find it fun in itself, as a huge number of allegedly true stories, and it also provides a very good general training, in taking a mass of evidence, basing a personal interpretation on that, and then seeking to persuade others of the viability of that viewpoint. This skill is essential to many different subsequent careers, which is why history graduates are rarely unemployed. The government tried till recently to restrict entry into history degrees, and force students into less popular and more directly vocational subjects, by funding the latter more generously. The current coalition has, however, completely deregulated university entry, now that applicants have to pay for their own degrees, and history departments are undergoing a considerable expansion in staff and students, including my own. It is a very good time at which to specialise in the subject.

The other areas about which you asked are in very different positions, both from that of history in general and from each other. Pagan Studies have not established themselves as a sub discipline anywhere in the British academic system; the best that happens is that they are taught by a few individuals attached to some Religious Studies departments. More generally, to be a Pagan in contemporary Britain is not too dissimilar from being a Baptist or Quaker in eighteenth-century Britain: it is now possible to be known as one without fear of losing your job, having your home attacked or having your children taken away, but such a religious allegiance can still be enough to stop those who profess it from being taken seriously as candidates for responsible and powerful positions. Shamanism, by contrast, is a huge growth area for research in many disciplines, and is in danger of being used as a catch-all category and mechanism for explanation in large areas of history, prehistory and archaeology. The early modern witch trials, and the beliefs that generated them, are now a heavily populated and totally respectable subject for research among professional historians, and the study of witchcraft and magic in the ancient and medieval worlds is expanding rapidly. That of the same subjects in the modern Western world, by contrast, has hardly commenced, and is tainted by the general public prejudice against practitioners. We still have a long way to go in order to build a genuinely tolerant, liberal and multi-faith society, based on individual choice, in our nation at least, Ethan. Your blog may be doing something valuable to further that cause.

EDW: Thank you so much for talking with me here today, Professor Hutton; I wish you all the very best in future.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

My reflections on "New Antiquities: Transformations of the Past in the New Age and Beyond", Freie Universität Berlin

I've just arrived back home in (rainy, rainy) London after spending the past week in the slightly sunnier German capital of Berlin. There, I took part in an academic conference/workshop over the course of Thursday 26 and Friday 27 June that went by the name of "New Antiquities: Transformations of the Past in the New Age and Beyond". Held at the Freie Universität Berlin ("Free University of Berlin") in the city's leafy southern suburbs, the conference was organised by Almut-Barbara Renger of the Freie Universität and Dylan Burns of the University of Leipzig, and sought to undertake a "critical examination of how individuals and groups appeal to, reconceptualize, and reinvent the religious world of the ancient Mediterranean as they attempt to legitimize developments in contemporary religious life (1960s–present day)." First and foremost I must stress that this was a really good event, and was one that I enjoyed very much. Although I have presented a paper at a conference outside of London in the past -- in May 2013 I provided an overview of Cornish rock art at the "Fourth Rock Art Meetings of Centre National de Prehistoire" in France's Dordogne -- this was the first conference outside London in which I was able to present the fruits of my own first hand research, so it was also a very important opportunity for me on a personal level.

Contemporary Paganism:


The conference poster for "New Antiquities"
After an introductory welcome from Renger and Burns, the event was kicked off by delving into the role of contemporary Pagan new religious movements in appropriating and re-using elements of pre-Christian Mediterranean religion for their own contemporary spiritual purposes. First up was a Russian scholar, Ravel Nosachev of Moscow's Saint Tikhon's University, who discussed the life, thought, and influence of the mid-20th century Russian esotericist Evgeniy Golovin, a worshipper of Dionysus who articulated his own unique form of Traditionalism. I had never heard of Golovin before, and admittedly know far less about the Traditionalist movement than I would like, but I found Nosachev's description to be very interesting. From there, the conference moved on to look at Western-centred Pagan conceptions of a matriarchal, Goddess-venerating Mediterranean past, starting with the University of Zurich's Meret Fehlmann, who outlined the emergence of this theory in the works of Jane Ellen Harrison and Jacquetta Hawkes and then focused on how it has been articulated by the prominent American Goddess Movement thealogian Carol P. Christ. Fehlmann's presentation was followed by a paper from Kathryn Rountree of New Zealand's Massey University, read in absentia by Nicholas Marshall. Here, Rountree discussed the differing approaches to ancient Mediterranean goddesses found in the Maltese Goddess Movement and in Greek Hellenismos, two Pagan groups with somewhat differing approaches to reinventing aspects of the past.

Sticking with this same theme was Aussie archaeologist Caroline Tully of the University of Melbourne (whom I interviewed about her work here at Albion Calling back in January 2013), with her analysis of how the belief systems of Minoan Crete have been utilised by two Pagan groups, the Goddess Movement and the Minoan Brotherhood, and pointing out how some of these religious movement's views on the Minoans are based on since-discredited archaeology. Lily A. Bonga of the INSTAP Study Center for East Crete then explored how the concept of an ancient south-eastern European society devoted to a Mother Goddess developed within academia, highlighting the work of scholars like Arthur Evans, James Mellart, and Marija Gimbutas, and asserting that while her ideas are nevertheless incorrect, much of the criticism levelled at Gimbutas has been unfair and rested on building straw man arguments. Taking a contrasting position to Bonga's latter argument was
the Freie Universität's archaeologist Helga Vogel, who provided an overview of current research at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey and highlighting how this does not support the interpretations of such sites articulated by adherents of the Goddess Movement. A longstanding feminist activist, Vogel presented the intriguing argument - albeit one that has been made previously by others, namely Cynthia Eller - that a belief in ancient matriarchies and Great Goddess religion is not in any way necessary for the cause of contemporary feminism and that instead it can serve a reactionary role in enforcing essentialist gender stereotypes.

Antinous statue in Potsdam

Also talking about the contemporary Pagan use of Mediterranean sources was Hubert Mohr of the University of Basel, who gave an overview of online Pagan "temples", building on the work of Douglas Cowan. Unless I simply misunderstood (which is always possible), I believe that in the subsequent discussion, he argued that contemporary Paganism was primarily a reaction against Christianity, and that thus with the decline in Christian dominance in Western nations, we could talk about the emergence of a "Post-Paganism". I thought that this was an interesting and novel idea, but given that I would fundamentally reject the concept that contemporary Paganism is inherently a rejection of Christianity, I would also have to reject "Post-Paganism" as an analytical framework, particularly as it would suggest that present-day Paganism is a completely different animal from that of the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, which I do not believe to be the case. And then of course there was my own paper, in which I examined the revived worship of Antinous, the deified lover of the Emperor Hadrian who has come to be particularly beloved of gay men and others who identify under the wider rubric of "queer". I was certainly pleased with the response that I received and the interesting questions that many of those in attendence offered to me.

Although I do not self-define as a Pagan, I did find myself being one of the most "pro-Pagan" scholars at the conference. Many of those present, both archaeologists and religious studies scholars, deemed it to be of great importance to actively challenge the narratives of the past that are advocated by certain Pagan groups, namely those which are based on what mainstream academia has established as being rooted in outdated and/or shoddy scholarship. Although I passionately shared their belief in
educating people about the latest academic research and interpretations of the past, and opposing the pernicious influence of factually erroneous claims to heritage, I was somewhat critical of the general approach that was being purported. Pagans are already a marginalised minority community group within the Western nations, and still today can face aggressive and at times violent persecution from sectors of the Christian Right; thus, I fear that further marginalising Pagans and encouraging an "us vs. them" mentality between the academic and Pagan communities will be significantly detrimental to the progressive dialogue that myself and others -- notably the likes of Robert J. Wallis, Jenny Blain, and Ronald Hutton -- have done much to encourage.

Related to this was a group discussion as to whether the term "reconstructionist" was really appropriate when referring to contemporary Pagan groups. Some argued that it is not a term that scholars should use because it is fundamentally impossible to actually "reconstruct" a belief system that is rooted in a completely different historical and socio-cultural reality to our own, particularly given that it has been assembled from the extremely fragmented archaeological and historical evidence that is available to us. However, following the usage set out by Michael Strmiska in his introductory chapter to Modern Paganism in World Cultures (ABC-CLIO, 2005), I championed the use of "reconstructionism" in reference to certain forms of contemporary Paganism, highlighting that not only is it widely used within the academic field of Pagan studies, but that it is also widely recognised within the Pagan community itself. I argued that it does not matter whether reconstructionist forms of Paganism are an accurate reconstruction of pre-Christian belief systems or not; what is important is that practitioners of these groups are attempting to reconstruct an extinct belief system, and that both they and most scholars of the subject accept that terminology as a practical descriptor. Not everyone agreed of course, but that just made the whole debate more interesting, and I am pleased to say that the whole affair remained entirely good humoured.


Neo-Gnosticism:

Following the papers on contemporary Paganism, the workshop moved on to look at how another broad family of new religious movements -- the "Neo-Gnostics" -- have made use of those ancient Mediterranean religions, specifically those that scholars often classify as "
Gnostic". This was a subject about which I knew very little, but it was fascinating to listen to a variety of excellent papers on the subject. Kicking this off was a paper by Franz Winter of the University of Vienna, read in absentia by Dylan Burns; in this, Winter discussed the use of ancient Gnostic texts in the work of Colombian esotericist Samael Aun Weor. This paper was followed by an offering from Nemanja Radulović of the University of Belgrade in which he examined the use of Gnostic elements within two "Neo-Bogolomist" groups active in southeastern Europe: Bulgaria's Universal White Brotherhood and Croatia's Slavic Church of Bogomils and Holy Grail. We then headed over to rural Oregon on the West Coast of the USA with Anne Kreps of the Yale-NUS College in Singapore. Here, she discussed the Essene Church of Christ, a New Age-influenced Christian group founded by Brother David "Day" Nazariah which claims a pedigree stretching right back to the ancient Essenes, an ascetic Jewish sect who have come to be associated (rightly or wrongly) with the Gnostic Dead Sea Scrolls.

Nicholas Marshall of Aarhus University provided a paper on the relationship between scholarship and occultism during the 20th century, focusing in particular on the interpretation of theurgy within the two communities. Particularly interesting for my own interests was his discussion of how followers of Thelema, the new religious movement founded by Aleister Crowley, have interacted with academia. Following this was Matthew Dillon of Rice University, Houston with a paper arguing that mnemohistory is the best approach to adopt when examining contemporary "Gnostic" movements. The final paper on Neo-Gnosticism was provided by Linda Simonis of the Ruhr University Bochum and delves into the Gnostic elements present in the lyrics of two songs by British esotericist and musician David Tibet for his cult experimental band, Current 93. Throughout these papers, I was repeatedly reminded how many of those occultists who embrace elements of ancient Gnosticism mix them with elements of contemporary Paganism, thus making it all the more appropriate that these two broad religious movements were being discussed together at this workshop.


Concluding thoughts:

One of the reasons that this conference was such a success was because of the wide range of disciplines that were represented there. Archaeologists such as myself sat alongside folklorists, religious studies scholars, and specialists in literary studies, allowing for the broader themes to be tackled from an array of different perspectives. Notably however, there were no cultural or social anthropologists actually present at the event, which was a shame because I felt that the anthropological perspective would have been particularly valuable during the wider discussions and debates; through my work in the field of Pagan studies it has become abundantly clear that religious studies scholars and anthropologists often embrace very different theoretical perspectives to studying religious movements, and thus it would have added another interesting voice to the table. Also significant was the fact that contributors came from various parts of the world; although an overwhelming majority were either natives of Germanophile Europe or Americans, there were a few of us from elsewhere, namely England, Serbia, Russia, and Australia. This had both its merits and its disadvantages; bringing academics together in a spirit of international cooperation and dialogue is of fundamental importance to the future of scholarship, but at the same time it seemed apparent that there are also cultural norms which differ between nations - what an academic from one nation saw as simply being forthright and direct was interpreted as being rude by those of several others. This, however, is simply part of the perils and pitfalls of international dialogue - and it certainly livens things up a bit !

As I specified at the start of this post, I really did think that this was an amazing event and I get the impression that many of the other contributors felt the same. My thanks go out to both Almut and Dylan for organising it, and to everyone else who took part and helped to make this an intellecturally stimulating couple of days. Hopefully it will inspire many future events across Europe and indeed the wider world at which similar topics can be discussed and pioneering new research can be presented.

Friday, 20 June 2014

New Publication: Review article on "Britain's Pagan Heritage" in the Journal of Religion and Society 16

The JRS logo, featuring symbols of
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
It has just come to my attention that a review article which I authored some months back has seen publication in volume 16 of the Journal of Religion and Society (JRS). An online, peer-reviewed academic journal, JRS is published by the Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Creighton University, a Jesuit institution in Omaha, Nebraska which professes openness to all religions and encourages an attitude of inter-faith dialogue and scholarship. Although not one of the world's best known outlets for religious studies, one of the Journal's great strengths lies in the fact that it operates on an open-access basis, meaning that its contents are always available online for free, and are not hidden behind a paywall. As part of my conviction that wherever possible, academic knowledge should be accessible to all, I'm a big fan of the open-access system and like to offer my support to those journals which utilise it. Hence my decision to contribute a review article to JRS, which might otherwise seem like a somewhat strange choice for an atheist who studies pre-Christian European belief systems and contemporary Paganism(s)!

My review article is titled "Britain's Pagan Heritage: A Review of Ronald Hutton's Pagan Britain and Marion Gibson's Imagining the Pagan Past" and through focusing on the aforementioned two tomes it offers a critical overview of current research into the pre-Christian belief systems of Britain and the way that they have been subsequently interpreted. In doing so, it reflects the diverging theoretical attitudes of archaeology and Pagan studies, and the potential problems that we scholars face when the two collide on the issue. If this sounds like something that you might be interested in, take a look at it here!

Thursday, 19 June 2014

An Interview with Dr. Sabina Magliocco

Today here at Albion Calling I am honoured to present an interview with Dr. Sabina Magliocco, Professor of Anthropology at California State University, Northridge. A trained folklorist, Dr. Magliocco is internationally known for her work in the field of Pagan studies, having produced some of the most important research on contemporary Paganism in the United States published to date. Her research has also delved into the politics of festival in rural Sardinia, Italian vernacular magic, and the May Day customs of Cornwall. In this insightful interview, she discusses the many projects that she has undertaken over the course of her career, enlightens us on her formative influences, and tackles the "insider-outsider" divide in anthropology. Read on... 

EDW: Having attained a BA in Anthropology from Brown University in 1980, you went on to obtain an MA in Folklore at Indiana University and then a PhD from that same institution in 1988. The following year you obtained a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct post-doctoral research in Italy before obtaining a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1990 to 1994, and then at University of California, Los Angeles (1994), University of California, Santa Barbara (1995), and University of California, Berkeley (1995–96) before finally arriving at California State University, Northridge in 1997, where you have remained ever since. At want point did you decide that you wanted to pursue an academic career and what were the formative influences that made you decide that you wanted to devote yourself to the related fields of anthropology and folkloristics ?

Dr. Magliocco engaged in fieldwork in Monghidoro, Emilia-Romagna,
Northern Italy, 2005. Photograph by Giorgio Polmoni.
SM: Without a doubt, the greatest formative influence on my personal development was growing up between two cultures: those of Italy and the United States. Unlike the typical immigrant experience, which is one of loss of the home language and culture, my family shuttled back and forth in a yearly seasonal migration, spending the school year in the American Midwest and summers in Italy. This pattern allowed us to maintain strong bonds with our culture of origin; we children essentially grew up bilingual and bicultural. But belonging to two cultures and shuttling between them also creates feelings of disjuncture, of always being marginal and temporary, of belonging at once to both cultures and fully to neither. My aunt used to call me her little platypus: I was an odd child who was neither one thing nor another. I grew to be very observant and extremely adaptable; I learned to identify the markers of being a cultural insider and imitate them in order to not be excluded by the other children. Sometimes it worked; many times, it did not, and especially in the context of my American schooling, I grew up feeling marginalized and liminal. Eventually I came to feel comfortable in the margins, sympathetic to other cultural, ethnic, and racial outsiders as well as towards anything that was excluded or stigmatized by the dominant paradigm.

Going into academia seems a logical choice in hindsight, but it was not a foregone conclusion for me. I come from a family of physicians, and my father’s wish was that I follow him into that noble profession. From a young age, he trained me in the methods of scientific observation: every weekend, we would look at slides of various materials under my great-grandfather’s old brass microscope. Some were slides his grandfather had made as a young field veterinarian in Sicily which my father had kept and brought to the United States; others we made ourselves, looking at onion skin, pond water, cork, and other things from the natural world. My father taught me to keep a field journal with meticulous notes, commenting on each aspect from the collection of materials to the nature of the cells we looked at. When I was a little older, he introduced me to the library at the university where he taught, and I began to do research there for my school papers. 

Magliocco, c.1969 along the Green River, Ohio.
Photograph by E. Bruno Magliocco.
But much as I loved science and the natural world, my mother’s love of literature also transferred itself to me. She was trained in Classical languages and literature, and named us all out of the Latin authors. From the time I was small, she read me children’s versions of Classical Greek and Roman myths, folktales, and stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Her mother, my maternal grandmother, was a gifted storyteller who would spin fantastic tales that blended elements from popular romances with details from our own lives, making it seem that the heroes and heroines were children just like us. These stories, plus the family legends recounting my parents’ survival during the Second World War and the deeds of distinguished ancestors, created a kind of connective tissue that bridged the gaps of culture and geography in my life. My love of stories was reflected in my childhood games, in which I created elaborate cultures and folktale-like scripts for my troll dolls, or acted out stories I read in books, such as Emilio Salgari’s novels of pirate adventures in distant corners of the world.

While I began university with the idea that I would study medicine, it quickly became apparent that I had more of an aptitude for humanistic disciplines. I wanted to write fiction and poetry, but as a college student, I had little life experience to draw on, and I was better at expository writing, anyway. In my anthropology and folklore classes, I discovered a vocabulary for expressing the cultural disjunction I felt growing up bicultural, as well as methods of analysis that made use of my scientific skills. I was also strongly influenced in my career choice by an aunt by marriage who was a cultural anthropologist at the University of Bologna, and by Margaret Mead, a close family friend – she and my father had met when he was working at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, where Mead was a frequent lecturer. I was powerfully drawn to the idea of fieldwork – living for long periods of time in unfamiliar cultures and engaging in participant-observation. In the end, I chose to specialize in folkloristics because I was more interested in European cultures and traditions than in those of Third World peoples, and because I was deeply invested in so many of the genres within its purview, including supernatural legends, foodways, folk crafts and architecture, and folksongs (I enjoyed a stint as an amateur folksinger from my teens to my mid-thirties). I loved the methodology of cultural anthropology, and folkloristics seemed to unite all of my various passions under a single discipline.

EDW: Your early published research focused on a pastoral highland community on the Italian island of Sardinia, looking in particular at their Catholic festivals and highlighting the socio-economic pressures that they were experiencing as a result of globalisation. Your research would be published as The Two Madonnas: The Politics of Festival in a Sardinian Community (Peter Lang, 1993; second ed., Waveland Press, 2005), although I am given to understand that an Italian translation was also published in 1995. What made you decide to head all the way over to Europe to undertake this research and what did you see as this project's struggles and achievements ?

SM: I grew up partly in Italy, spending most of my childhood summers with my grandmothers in Rome, or with cousins at various seaside villas along the Mediterranean coast; so doing fieldwork in Europe seemed like a natural extension of my early life. I originally wanted to work in Ireland or one of the Celtic countries, and in fact studied Gaelic for a time; but my graduate advisor Linda Dégh, who came from the Hungarian school of European ethnology, persuaded me that it would be best to work in my own country, with a culture with which I was already more or less familiar. I chose Sardinia because of a woman who had worked as a domestic for my grandmother, and to whom I had grown much attached. Bettina, as she was called, looked after me during those summers I spent in Italy, and regaled me with stories of her village in the Sardinian highlands. I imbued it with romantic, pastoral ideals that were intensified by the general scorn with which the region was regarded by my urban, bourgeois family; already drawn to the marginal and rejected, it only made me more determined to go there one day. After my grandmother’s death, Bettina retired to her village, where I visited her in the summer of 1983. I like to say that Sardinia got into my blood that summer: I knew then, with a strange feeling of destiny, that I would do my doctoral fieldwork there.

Bessude in February 1986. Photograph by Sabina Magliocco.

Yet even spending part of my childhood in Italy could not have prepared me for the culture shock I experienced when I first went to live in the village of Bessude with my old nanny and her family. There were all sorts of tensions and struggles, beginning with those of social class and extending to gender expectations and political conflicts. I grew up in a bourgeois, cosmopolitan, urban family, with a father who treated me as a son; Bessude was a peasant village, and I was both resented and regarded as an outsider by most of its inhabitants. What I knew about rural Mediterranean life came from academic books. I had a lot to learn. I eventually forged very strong bonds with a group of young women also in their twenties, who lived at home in the village and either attended the university in Sassari or worked at various jobs. Through them, I gained access to other village networks, as well as the organizing committees of the festivals that I was studying. I also became aware of local political tensions and how they came to be expressed through the festivals. The results were reflected in my ethnography The Two Madonnas: the Politics of Festival in a Sardinian Community (1993, 2005), a book that is quite sensitive to tensions between the categories of “tradition” and “modernity” as they were expressed in the margins of Europe in the 1980s and early 1990s. Because of my gender and position as a fieldworker, it offers unprecedented insights into the dreams, ideals, and struggles of village women, showing them as cultural and political agents in the context of globalization.

EDW: Your interest in the folklore of Italy has of course continued into recent years, as is evidenced by some of your important research into various Italian folk beliefs regarding magic and the preternatural; you have penned papers on Italian “cunning folk” as well as on the folk figure of Aradia, in which you put together a compelling case that the latter had genuine folkloric antecedents and was not the fictitious creation of American folklorist Charles Leland for his Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1899). What led to these particular areas of exploration and is Italian folk magic a topic that you hope to delve into further in future ?

SM: When I was living in Bessude, folk magic and the preternatural were all around me. Even though I was studying festivals and economic change, I collected a great deal of supernatural legends, charms, healing, and magic, partly because it was interwoven with material about saints and their festivals, but also because I was trained as an anthropologist to pay attention to everything that was going on around me. I had the opportunity to interview several traditional healers, and while I did not write about them in my first publications, it was always my intention to return to that material and do something with it.

Charles Leland's Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1899),
a book purporting to describe a pagan witchcraft religion in
Northern Italy.

When I began to study contemporary Paganism, and especially as I became interested in ethnic varietals such as Stregheria, I was curious about the alleged connection between Old World and newer, reclaimed forms of magic. Many Italian American streghe told stories of inheriting their tradition from a grandmother or other relative, and while some of these could easily be dismissed as typical “grandmother stories,” a form of invented tradition or “fakelore,” others were more compelling and not so easily dismissed, especially because I had seen practitioners of Italian folk magic first-hand. This interest led me to collaborate with two Italian scholars, Augusto Ferraiuolo of the University of Caserta and Boston University, and Placida Staro, an independent scholar affiliated with the University of Bologna, to examine vernacular magical traditions in Campania and Emilia-Romagna in 2005-06. Our work showed that there was some continuity between the beliefs and practices of revival practitioners in the U.S. and folk magical traditions in Italy. In some cases, Italian American streghe were re-contextualizing and elaborating on healing traditions that existed in many families, such as the removal of the evil eye, which is still ubiquitous in many regions.

I was also aware of Charles Godfrey Leland’s claims in Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1899), and while there, too, I suspected a great deal of embroidery and invention, I had a niggling suspicion that some core of the work might bear a relationship to actual practice. It was by bringing together historical research with some of my earlier work on legends and magic in Sardinia that I unraveled the puzzle of the name “Aradia,” linking her to a Sardinian folk character known as “S’Araja Justa” or “Sa Rejusta.” We know this character goes back as far as the 13th century in Sardinia, and that her presence coincides with the influence of Pisan and Genoese clerics, who brought Italian inquisitorial ideas to the island; therefore, it is quite likely that a character with the name “Aradia” existed in Italian folklore at that time. Whether this character exactly corresponds to Leland’s Aradia is another matter; since folklore changes constantly in response to changes in the socio-cultural context, by the time Leland arrived in Florence in the late 19th century, Aradia’s story might have undergone a number of further changes. I did not find evidence to support Leland’s claims of witchcraft as a religion with an unbroken chain going back to Etruscan times; that is highly unlikely and impossible to prove.

I still have a great deal of material on Italian vernacular magic that I would like to publish someday, but in the current economic climate, it’s been difficult to find a publisher interested in this material or grants to support the writing of the project. This one may have to wait until I retire from teaching and can dedicate myself more fully to research and writing.

EDW: After your research in Sardinia, you re-focused your research in order to explore the contemporary Pagan community of the United States, resulting in the publication of your two books, Neo-Pagan Sacred Art and Altars: Making Things Whole (University Press of Mississippi, 2002) and the more detailed Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004). You were probably the first trained folklorist to actually explore this subject matter, thus bringing an important new perspective to the field of Pagan studies. What was it that inspired you to delve into this new area of research, particularly one that was potentially quite controversial among academic anthropologists and folklorists at the time ?

Magliocco's Neo-Pagan Sacred Art
and Altars
. Copyright Uni of Mississipi Press.
SM: After I left the field in 1986, the political situation in Bessude became quite volatile, so much so that my efforts to publish The Two Madonnas in Italian got caught up in the internecine conflict. The local administration, which at first had supported my project, felt that the results did not portray their community as they would have liked; they thought my book made them look backwards and old-fashioned. The mayor took out her anger and disappointment on Bettina and her family, because they had hosted me, by taking away a part of their land in order to build a road – a road to nowhere, as it turned out. They had relied on this land to grow vegetables and pasture sheep, so the loss hurt them economically. I was mortified by this outcome. As an anthropologist, I am bound by a professional code of ethics to put the good of the people I work with before my own, and I felt responsible. The last thing I had ever wanted was to cause lasting harm to the very person who had nurtured me like a second mother, and who had made possible my doctoral dissertation research and the career I hoped would come from that. I took it as a personal failure on my part, and for a time, I did not want to return to Sardinia for fear that more harm would come to the people I loved as a result of my presence. This coincided with a period of instability in my professional and domestic life in which I had neither the funds nor the possibility to return to Italy, so I began to cast about for a new research topic. Since I had examined women’s roles in ritual and politics, I hoped to find another venue in which to explore that theme closer to home. I was also keenly aware that American academic publishing was becoming less interested in European ethnography; several colleagues advised me to find something more relevant and significant to study.

At the time, I was teaching a course I had developed called “The Supernatural in the Modern World” (a course I still teach today). It looks at vernacular traditions that make reference to magic and the preternatural against the context of an Enlightenment construction of modernity. Among the topics I covered was modern Paganism; I used Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, which had just come out in 1989. I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and I became aware of a woman called Selena Fox who claimed to be a Witch and was a graduate student in the School of Social Work on campus. I invited her to come speak to my class about her traditions, and she, in turn, invited me and my students to an Earth Day ritual at Circle Sanctuary, a nature preserve she ran with her husband, Dennis Carpenter, out near Mt. Horeb. On a sunny, cold Saturday, I rented a van from the uni and drove down there with a passel of students from the class. The ritual was like nothing I had experienced before. It was held on a tall mound encircled by birth and oak trees, with a view of the valley below. Selena, a powerful woman with flowing dark hair and a strong, deep voice, called on the four directions, invoked the names of goddesses and ancestors, and advocated for a spiritual connection to the land and political action to protect it. It seemed to me then that I had found a possible topic – that modern Paganism might be another way for me to explore the connections between gender, power, and ritual in a new context.

Magliocco's Witching Culture.
Copyright Uni of Pennsylvania Press.

I thought my new topic was timely and more interesting to American academic publishers than peasant culture in rural Italy; in fact I was encouraged to pursue it by several senior colleagues. I did not at first realize how controversial this new area would be among academics; but even if I had known, I don’t think I would have made a different decision. As in the case of Sardinia, I felt a sense that fate was drawing me towards this project. I have always followed my heart and intuition in research; I honestly don’t think I can work any other way.

At first, one of the things that drew me to study modern Paganism was, paradoxically, a longing for my land of lost content in Sardinia. I missed the friendships I had formed there with other girls my age; I longed for the sense of community, the connectedness of things, and the rhythm of the year cycle scanned in festivals and celebrations. In modern Pagan festivals, I could experience some of the same feelings – jumping over a midsummer bonfire, for example, at the same time that I knew my friends in a village half a world away were doing the same thing. Eventually, I formed the same kinds of close bonds with my Pagan interlocutors that I had with my Sardinian ones, and the new project took on a life of its own. When, at a ritual in 1995, I experienced a vision of the goddess Brigid melting my heart in her forge and shaping it into a new one, when she put it into my chest while saying, “This is your heart, and fire shall make it whole,” I interpreted it as a confirmation that my field methodology, my particular way of working, was valid, and would heal the wounds I still felt as a result of what had happened in Sardinia.

EDW: In Witching Culture, you explained that although not raised a Pagan, in coming to study the community you went through an initiatory process and found yourself having genuine spiritual experiences as a member of a Wiccan coven. Thus, you bridged the traditional anthropological divide between the insider and outsider. Given that the issues surrounding the insider-outside and emic-etic standpoints within Pagan studies have been reignited fairly recently by Markus Altena Davidsen, could you provide us with an overview of your own perspective on this issue ? More specifically, I'd be interested to learn more about how you have reconciled being an academic anthropologist and folklorist with being a practising Pagan given the sometimes hostile attitude toward the latter in the academy ?

SM: So much has been written about this issue in anthropology in the last 20 years that it still amazes me when it comes up. Aren’t we done with it yet? I guess not, so here goes.

First of all, as a folklorist/anthropologist, my job is to access other cultures to try to understand them, and bring those insights back to my own culture so we can learn more about others and ourselves. My methodology involves participant-observation – note the “participant” part. You can’t learn much about another culture or religion if you’re not willing to participate, and religious rites require some basic level of participation as a show of respect. When I was studying festivals in Sardinia, I attended dozens of celebratory masses, as well as weekly Sunday mass, where I did what I had to do to blend in: I learned to stand when other congregants stood, kneel when they knelt, and cross myself when they did, even though I was not Catholic or even Christian. I did not take communion or go to confession – but then, neither did most people my age. As Jone Salomonsen noted, modern Pagan rituals are highly participatory events; there is no outside from which an observer can watch, undetected, to discover what’s going on. This is especially true of mystery traditions such as Wicca. So I did what any anthropologist or folklorist worth her salt should do: I found a group with which I felt comfortable, which felt comfortable with me and my research project; I attended their rituals for a year, and eventually I underwent initiation. I also attended dozens of rituals from other Pagan traditions. In some of these contexts, I had extraordinary experiences – and thank goodness I did, because had I not had them, I would have missed the whole point of what my interlocutors were experiencing: I would have failed to understand one of the primary reasons why they found their religions compelling, powerful, and important. In other words, I would have failed at my job.

I am hardly the first anthropologist or folklorist to have had these experiences. Scholars studying a number of mystery traditions have undergone initiation to better understand them – for example, Karen McCarthy Brown, who studied Vodou among Haitian immigrants in Brooklyn, was initiated as a practitioner and “married” to the lwa Dambala as part of her work. Paul Stoller underwent initiation as a sorcerer among the Songhay of Niger. Jeanne Favret-Saada, studying witchcraft in rural France, found herself having to participate in the world of magic to some degree, because, as she found, when it comes to magic, there is no “outside;” either you’re an insider, or you won’t learn anything at all. Now, when you get involved with magic and ritual, you are inevitably going to have some unusual, even extraordinary experiences; that’s the whole point of these events as art forms. Again, many anthropologists before me have had these experiences, and some have written about them. The best-known is probably Edie Turner, who saw a spirit in the shape of a dark cloud rise from the body of a patient who was undergoing a healing ritual among the Ndembu; but others include Bruce Grindal, Raymond Lee, David Young, and Jean-Guy Goulet.  

Dr. Magliocco at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, Southern England, 2005.
Photograph by Jaynie Rabb Aydin.

Some reviewers of Witching Culture have criticized me for writing about these experiences, perhaps even for having them, assuming that they had somehow changed my beliefs and clouded my ability to be objective about modern Paganisms. This point of view is mistaken on a number of counts. The first error – assuming that my beliefs changed as a result of initiation and participation – is understandable, because coming from a Christocentric perspective, as most Westerners unconsciously do, belief is seen as the central feature of religion. But like the majority of world religions, modern Paganisms are not primarily religions of belief; they are religions of practice and experience. My beliefs have not fundamentally changed as a result of the experiences I had during my Pagan fieldwork. Instead, I have a deepened, enriched understanding of a religious culture and its performative art forms that helped me portray it in a more holistic way. In fact, had I not had the experiences, the picture I would have been able to paint would have been incomplete. No one would bat an eye if a folklorist studying a potter apprenticed herself to that craft in order to better understand how pots are produced, or if an ethnomusicologist studying Irish folk music learned to play the fiddle or (gods help us) the bódhran. But because we’re dealing here with religions, a co-religionist is assumed to try to convert others rather than to give an unbiased account. Once again, this misconception is based on an evangelical model of religion that does not apply to any of the modern Paganisms.

The second way that the critics are mistaken is in assuming that it is possible to give an objective account of a different culture. The postcolonial, postmodern critique of the social sciences has pretty much eliminated the idea of objective research – the notion that the researcher operates as a completely neutral observer who can deliver the “Truth” about another society. As James Clifford stated so eloquently, all ethnographies are only partial truths, because we all bring unique points of view and prejudices with us wherever we go. Those viewpoints and prejudices influence what we see, how we see it, what we think is important, and how we convey it. In that sense, as Clifford wrote, all ethnographies are “fictions,” in the sense of carefully constructed documents, rather than pure, unadulterated facts. The important thing is to admit to ourselves and our readers where our blind spots might lie, so they can better evaluate the texts we produce.

In the Introduction to Witching Culture, I tried to lay out for readers exactly what my biases were. As you say, I was not raised as a Pagan. However, I was raised in a non-religious household by parents who had been schooled in Italy in the 1930s, with a national curriculum that celebrated the glories of Classical Rome as a Golden Age to which modern Italians should aspire. While neither of my parents’ families were politically Fascist, it would be nearly impossible not to be influenced on some level by the rhetoric that predominated at the time. In turn, their viewpoint influenced my own education: I studied Latin for eight years, and Ancient Greek for two; I spent summers exploring Italian archaeological sites and museums; I steeped myself in Classical literature as well as young adult fiction that reconstructed that period for a modern audience – I loved the works of Mary Renault, Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart. As I grew older, my interests extended to the Iron Age cultures and literatures of the Celts; in addition to The Mabinogion and The Táin, I read the works of Lloyd Alexander and Evangeline Walton, and of course, the fantasy literature of J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. LeGuin, to name just a few of my favorite authors from that time. My literary passions were reflected in my activities: I joined my high school’s Classics Club, which put on plays re-enacting scenes from Classical mythology, and I continued to elaborate on the make-believe world I had created for the trolls, producing books of troll epic poetry, elaborate genealogies, and histories of the troll world. All the while, I was also very engaged with the natural world: whether along the Italian maremma or in the hills and hollows of the Ohio valley, I spent long afternoons in the woods observing nature, watching animals and often caring for orphaned wildlife. I developed a worldview that was deeply informed by both my reading of the Classics and my participation in the natural world. Among modern Pagans, I found people whose worldview was quite similar to mine, influenced by many of the same books and pursuits. It shouldn’t be surprising that even after my field research was over, I found myself continuing to enjoy their company and participating in their rituals.

Pagan scholars are not the only ones who experience a sense of split allegiances in scholarship. Feminist scholars, minority scholars, and scholars who are what Lila Abu-Lughod calls “halfies” of one sort or another all face this dilemma, and must carefully negotiate between their belonging to a community and their study of it. Yet the very act of studying something forces us to distance ourselves from it, to be reflexive about our participation in it, and thus changes our relationship with it. There is really no such thing as a “native ethnographer.” Along the same vein, anthropological notions of “going native” are based on old-fashioned ideas that served to separate Western anthropologists from the colonized peoples they studied. They also assume that identity is fixed and unchanging. We now understand the fluid, evolving, and contextual nature of identity, such that who we are and how we choose to identify depends on many different factors, including whom we are with. That means that either-or constructions of identity are inaccurate and unhelpful.

The key to doing anthropology or folklore research effectively lies in successfully negotiating between the cultures you are studying and the culture of the academy. It is a form of “walking between the worlds,” as Pagans like to say, only in this case, I’m not talking about the spirit world, but about cultures that belong very much to the material world. You must learn to move between them with grace and reflection. You go deep, participate, get close to people, feel what it’s like to be one of them – then pull away and reflect on what just happened, using analysis and theoretical language to frame your thoughts. Then you go back and do it all over again. Because I grew up shuttling between two cultures, this process is second nature to me; I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t doing it. But anyone can learn it.

You ask how I’ve reconciled being an academic anthropologist and folklorist with being a practicing Pagan. I find this an odd question, because it presumes these two worlds are somehow impossible to reconcile, while I don’t see much of a contradiction between them. [EDW: just to clarify on this point, I did not mean to presume that the two worlds were irreconcilable, but rather they are in many cases mistrustful and critical of one another. Of course, in hindsight I can see how my use of language here could have been clearer!] Academic research in folklore, anthropology and archaeology made possible the reclamation of tradition that is at the root of modern Paganisms; it’s not something apart from Paganisms. I think it was Ronald Hutton who observed that academia is a three-degree initiatory system with robes even more splendid than those of most modern Pagan traditions. The truth is that the academic world and the Pagan world are both “homes” in which I feel comfortable. They have different rules, to be sure, but then, most of us belong simultaneously to various subcultures that have different conventions, styles of dress, and modes of behavior, and we move seamlessly among them. If you play a sport, you wouldn’t dress, behave, or speak on the pitch the same way you would with your boss at work. It’s no more complicated than that.

It probably helps that I am not a very religious person. My strengths lie in research, organization, planning, and creating an environment in which other people can experience enchantment and express creativity. Those administrative skills make me a good teacher and department head as well as an effective priestess. I am lucky in that I have experienced very little prejudice or discrimination on the job because of my religious practice. I teach at a regional comprehensive university in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the world. The presence of that diversity makes my Paganism kind of a non-issue: I have colleagues and students who are Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Druid, agnostic, and atheist, as well as just about every variety of Christian you can think of. When I teach courses in the anthropology of religion, they are very much about active pluralism: preparing students to interact and negotiate with people of other religious traditions, including modern Paganisms, with mutual respect and appreciation.

EDW: One aspect of the American contemporary Pagan community which you have examined in closer depth is the tradition of Stregheria, a variant of Wicca that adopts elements from Italian folklore and which has proved popular with members of the Italian-American community. Indeed, your paper on the subject, included as a chapter in Michael F. Strmiska's edited volume Modern Paganism in World Cultures (ABC-CLIO, 2006) is the foremost academic study of the topic. What inspired you to explore this particular area and how do you feel practitioners of Stregheria have reacted to your work ?

SM: I wrote above about my research on Italian vernacular magical traditions. Another research area in which I have published is Italian American folklore. I was immediately interested in Stregheria because it united these two interests of mine. I saw Stregheria as a creative way some Italian Americans were choosing to craft identities that re-connected them with some of the traditions of their ancestors, albeit, of course, in a form that suited their contemporary identities. As a folklorist, I see tradition as a process that involves constant adaptation, variation, and innovation; Stregheria typifies that process. It is certainly not an exact reproduction of Italian vernacular practices as they existed in rural Italy, but it reformulates them, inserts them into a modern Wiccan framework, and creates a narrative around them which makes them appealing to second-, third-, and fourth generation Italian Americans, as well as to members of other ethnic groups.

Some practitioners of Stregheria and other modern Italian-based Pagan traditions at first reacted with hostility to my publications, which they interpreted as trying to de-legitimize their practices. I’ve even gotten threats and hate mail. However, the majority of respondents have actually been very positive and helpful. Information provided by my readers helped me more substantively connect vernacular Italian magical traditions with Stregheria. I have warm, supportive relationships with Lori Bruno, one of the co-founders (along with the late Leo Martello) of the Trinacrian Rose tradition in New York, and Raven Grimassi, the architect of Stregheria. Lori hosted me in high style when I visited New York in 1999; Raven and I have presented together at Pantheacon, the largest American Pagan conference, and over time our views have come closer together. I see him as a creative innovator and preservationist of Italian American vernacular magic.

EDW: One of your more recent projects has been in examining the 'Obby 'Oss folk practice that takes place every May Day in Padstow, Cornwall, as well as the manner in which it has been adopted by a Wiccan group, the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn, in Berkeley, California. On the basis of this research you and John Bishop produced the short documentary film Oss Tales (2007), which is available on DVD. What led you to explore this particular folk practice and will you be delving further into Cornish folklore and the manner in which it has been appropriated and re-used in future ?

The DVD of Oss Tales. Image by Tim Parr.
SM: I am interested in how academic research feeds back into communities, influencing how people understand and practice tradition. American folklorist and film-maker Alan Lomax had a tremendous impact on our understanding of folklore today. John Bishop, who is Alan’s nephew, and I were curious about how Lomax’s film “Oss Oss, Wee Oss” (1953) affected two communities: Padstow, a Cornish town with a May Day hobby horse where Lomax had shot “Oss Oss” in 1951; and a group of Pagans in Berkeley, California who were inspired to re-create certain aspects of the Cornish custom as part of their Beltane celebration, directly as a result of Lomax’s film. We went to Berkeley to interview members of the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn (NROOGD) as they rehearsed and performed the Beltane rite. We were able to get a small grant to travel to Padstow with two students to film the May Day custom fifty years after Lomax’s expedition. We also interviewed a number of film-makers who were involved with that project, including the late English folklorist Peter Kennedy. The DVD set, which includes the original Lomax film, digitally remastered, is a study of the effects of folklore scholarship on the process of tradition.

While I would love to delve further into Cornish folklore and its revival and appropriation, I have a number of very capable colleagues, such as Amy Hale, who are already doing that much better than I could. I continue to examine the intersections of academic knowledge and modern Paganisms, most recently the reburial issue and English Heritage, in an essay entitled “Intangible Rites: Heritage Sites, the Reburial Issue, and Modern Pagan Religions in Britain,” in Cultural Heritage in Transit (2014).

EDW: From 2004 to 2009 you served as the editor for Western Folklore, a peer-reviewed journal devoted to the folklore of the Western United States. How did you come to take on this position and what do you see as the importance of regionally-focused journals such as this one ?

SM: Although Western Folklore started out as the Journal of the California Folklore Society in 1942, its focus is now international, as is that of the other major American folklore journals, Journal of American Folklore and Journal of Folklore Research. It is the highest-rated and longest continuously-running of the regional folklore journals in the United States. In a large country such as the United States, regional folklore journals are important because they often focus on issues that are specific to one part of the country; they may have to do with a regional culture, ethnic minority, occupational group, or social movement that is local, although globalization and the advent of the Internet are increasingly deterritorializing all these issues. Regional journals can sometimes take more risks and publish more cutting-edge, innovative research than flagship journals, which are under a different kind of pressure to establish and maintain disciplinary norms. When Editor Barre Toelken of Utah State University suffered a stroke in 2003, the journal’s managing editor was searching for someone to take his place. Ours is a small field; so many regional journals had already succumbed to the economic pressures facing academic publishing that I didn’t want the same fate to befall WF. The loss of even one journal would mean significantly fewer venues for the publication of works in folkloristics. With the support of my university, I decided to step up, because I believe in the journal’s mission and wanted to make a contribution. It was an interesting and valuable experience for me and for the students who served as my editorial assistants during the five years of my tenure as editor.

Dr. Magliocco with an orphaned possum she had
hand-raised, 1980.
Photograph by E. Bruno Magliocco.
EDW: What projects have you got on the horizon which we should be keeping our eyes out for ?

SM: The project I’m working on now is called “Animals and the Spiritual Imagination.” It grows out of my lifelong love of animals as part of the natural world. I began by investigating how modern Pagans conceptualize animals as spiritual beings and make use of them in religious practice, but as a result of my students’ research, the project has now expanded to include mainstream religions. We know that most Pagan cosmologies have an important place for animals, but one of the surprises (I love the way research always surprises me) has been the discovery of how members of mainstream religions create vernacular cosmologies that give animals, especially household pets, important spiritual dimensions that are often neglected or denied by formal religious teachings. We also looked at how spiritual beliefs about animals affect behavior. Here, too, there have been some surprises: it seems that while Pagans are much more likely to attribute spiritual qualities to animals and work with them in spiritual practice, they don’t differ significantly from members of mainstream religions in terms of how they have modified their behavior towards animal and environmental causes. So perhaps belief is not as important in motivating behavioral change as we previously thought. I’m working on publishing some preliminary articles based on this data, but eventually hope to gather it all into another book that will be filled with wonderful stories my respondents have told me about their experiences with animals in both material and spiritual realms.

EDW: I like to round off every interview here at Albion Calling by asking my interviewees where they think that their respective field(s) are heading in the coming decades. In your case, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the future prospects for both folkloristics and Pagan studies, and in particular what you see as the potential for further intersection between the two areas ?

SM: Let me start by answering your second question first. I see many exciting possibilities for fruitful intersections between Folklore and Pagan Studies. Folklore is the study of traditional expressive culture and informal knowledge in complex societies, and its remit coincides perfectly with many aspects of modern Paganism, as my work has demonstrated. But my research has barely scratched the surface of all the different ways these subjects could be approached; I would love to see a new generation of scholars applying interdisciplinary approaches informed by the study of folklore to a variety of issues in modern Paganisms. There are, however, some serious obstacles to this.

Both folkloristics and Pagan studies occupy marginal positions in the academy today. To my knowledge, there is no official academic program in Pagan Studies at any American, European, or British university. There are a number of scholars who have written about Paganism from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, but most of us are not at research universities where we can train Ph.D. students. There is only one institution in the United States that grants a Ph.D. specifically in Folklore: Indiana University. Folklore Ph.D.s are available at a few other institutions, including Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin – Madison, University of Oregon, the University of California at Berkeley, and Utah State University, but at all of these, Folklore is an interdisciplinary program, and the student’s primary degree is in another discipline, such as English Literature or Anthropology. While I am entirely in favor of interdisciplinarity, the administrative realities of interdisciplinary programs are that they are invariably dependent on a number of variables they cannot control for funding and staffing, putting them in a very vulnerable position in today’s corporatized universities. This creates a situation that is not sustainable for long-term growth in either of these specializations.

For Pagan Studies and Folklore to thrive in the academy, there would need to be active Ph.D. programs at research universities in both fields. These programs would produce trained experts who would, in turn, be hired by viable departments and programs. That isn’t happening, and unfortunately, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. The problem isn’t necessarily with these areas of study – although that is not to say that Folklore and Pagan Studies don’t have their challenges; they do. The trouble lies in the changing model of academia as it increasingly loses public funding and becomes more corporatized, and as our national values (I’m talking here about the U.S. specifically, but much of what I say also applies to universities in Canada, Europe and Great Britain) move further and further away from the humanities, and more towards viewing colleges and universities as job training programs. In this climate, any discipline that does not have an immediate practical application is vulnerable. Folklore has to a certain extent been able to insert itself into, or reinvent itself as, “heritage management” or “cultural resource management.” The challenge for Pagan Studies, if it is to survive and thrive, is how to make itself relevant in the new economy. While the purview of Folklore is expanding as scholars reimagine it as “traditional knowledge” and “heritage,” the purview of Pagan Studies is being challenged by struggles to define “Paganism,” both within the movement itself, and by scholars who study it.

I think one of the greatest risks for Pagan Studies is the same thing that beleaguers other area studies programs: becoming a ghetto to which anyone working on Paganism is relegated, by virtue of a focus on that particular subject. The way around this is to come at the subject from a strong disciplinary focus. My advice to young people who want to “do” Pagan Studies is to choose a discipline and get the best disciplinary training they can in that field: become historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, sociologists, literary or language scholars, and so forth, and approach issues within modern Paganism from the perspective of that discipline. Disciplinary rigor doesn’t mean we can’t be interdisciplinary, but it forces us to learn methodology and theory through which we frame research. Strong disciplinary training can circumvent some of the flaws that Markus A. Davidsen points out in his critical essay. In an ideal world, Pagan Studies programs would emerge at research universities after a number of scholars who study Pagan subjects have already established themselves in a variety of disciplinary niches.

The good news is that courses on Folklore and Pagan topics are increasingly part of the curriculum at a variety of institutions, from community colleges to research universities, in departments of Anthropology, English, Religious Studies, and Communication. That means undergraduates are being exposed to both bodies of knowledge, creating a new generation educated about folklore and Paganisms. My hope is that this will eventually lead to a new generation of folklorists and Pagan Studies scholars working in traditional academic disciplines, who can come together in strength to form new kinds of interdisciplinary learning environments that will thrive in the marketplace of higher education.
EDW: Dr. Magliocco, thank you so much for talking to Albion Calling today. You've given me and my readers much to think about; I wish you all the best in future!