Saturday, 9 July 2016

Pagan Studies, Medieval Magic, and Satanic Ritual Abuse: A Summary of Some Recent London Conferences on the Study of Esotericism and Paganism

The past month has borne witness to a number of academic workshops and conferences here in London which I suspect would be of interest to a great many of those involved in the academic study of contemporary Paganism and esotericism. Given that for most of my colleagues in these fields, particularly those living in North America and Australia, a quick trip over to Britain just isn’t feasible, here I’ll provide a brief overview of these events coupled with some of my own personal reflections on them, with the hope that doing so will help to ensure that scholars of these fields will be able to gain a better appreciation of some of the work currently being undertaken in my own little corner of the world.

Social anthropologist Jonathan Woolley talked about
methodological approaches to the study of Paganism
The first of these events was “Researching Pagans and Paganism”, held in the basement of Treadwell’s bookshop in Bloomsbury on Monday 20th June. This evening workshop consisted of two talks on the subject of how best to conduct research into contemporary Paganism(s), the first from social anthropologist Jonathan Woolley, a doctoral student at Cambridge University, and the latter from Douglas Ezzy, a sociologist from the University of Tasmania currently visiting Europe. While I cannot recall all of the details of their respective arguments, their talks dealt with such issues as how to define Paganism, the insider/outsider debate, and how to respond to the concerns raised in Markus Altena Davidsen’s 2012 critique of Pagan studies (many of these issues will be dealt with in an article of mine in the forthcoming issue of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, an unpublished draft of which Woolley was kind enough to cite in his talk). The two talks were followed by a panel discussion between Woolley, Ezzy, and the audience of approximately twenty attendees, most of whom were members of the Pagan community – among them a number of prominent names – but also a few of those active in the academic study of contemporary Paganism too, such as myself and Kavita Maya, a doctoral candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies. This was the first British event devoted to the academic study of Paganism since last summer’s “Generation Hex: The Politics of Contemporary Paganism” conference at Cambridge (which was co-organised by Woolley and Maya alongside Elizabeth Cruse), and hopefully reflects growing activity among the coterie of scholars of Paganism presently active within the United Kingdom. Certainly, it has been good to have a public academic discussion of the methodological and theoretical issues facing this field take place here in the UK, given that in recent years such discussions have been largely restrained to the Pagan Studies Session of the American Academy of Religions annual conference.

The upturned pentagram is the most common symbol of Satanism
Treadwell’s was subsequently involved in co-organising “UK Satanic Abuse Scare, 25 Years On”, an evening conference on the Satanic ritual abuse (SRA) hysteria that hit Britain in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Held at the London School of Economics (LSE) on Tuesday 5th July, the event was produced in conjunction with INFORM, a charity based at the LSE that is dedicated to promoting accurate knowledge about new religious movements and other alternative and/or controversial spiritual groups. The conference was divided into two halves, the first comprising academic and scholarly approaches to the subject, the second devoted to the voices of Pagan practitioners who were negatively impacted by the moral panic. Kicking off the event was a talk by the anthropologist Jean La Fontaine, whose influential (yet at times controversial) research in the early 1990s demonstrated that there was no evidence for a widespread conspiracy of Satanists involved in the ritualised abuse and murder of children (as a number of evangelical Christian groups and media outlets were then claiming). This was followed by INFORM’s Sarah Harvey and Amanda Van Eck, who delved into the charity’s archives to look at how the British public’s response to contemporary Paganism and occultism has shifted since the group’s founding in 1988, paying particular attention to the concerns generated by the SRA panic. Next up was the journalist Rosie Waterhouse of City University London, whose own research during the early 1990s helped to demonstrate and publicise the lack of hard evidence behind most accusations of SRA. She outlined her own experiences and work on the subject, also drawing parallels between the SRA panic of the late 80s/early 90s and the way in which some journalists have reported on the allegations of sexual abuse directed at various celebrities in recent years. After a brief break, the conference continued with an interesting talk from Prudence Jones, the former President of the Pagan Federation, and then Phil Hine, the former editor of Pagan News, who each described their own experiences as prominent figures within the British Pagan community during the time of the hysteria.

The event was obviously dealing with a very sensitive and contentious subject matter, and one on which many people have strong and vocal opinions. However, one thing that I thought notable about the event was that the speakers invited all fell very much on one side of the debate (i.e. they were those who strongly believe that accounts of SRA are all, or virtually all, unsubstantiated and untrue, the product of a moral panic). There are of course others who have contested this approach and argued that – while an international conspiracy of child molesting and murdering Satanists is unlikely – some of those claiming to have been the victims of ritualised abuse are accurately relating events that they have experienced. Moreover, since the late 1990s, a number of Pagans and/or occultists have been arrested and convicted of sexually abusing minors: prominent examples include Robin Angus Fletcher in Australia, Colin Batley in Wales, Redvers Barnard in Greater Manchester, and Peter Petrauske in Cornwall. Clearly, sexual abuse affects the Pagan and occult communities in much the same way that it affects many other religious and indeed secular communities. Moreover, in certain instances (in particular that of Fletcher) that abuse is carried out in a manner that religious studies scholars could perhaps categorise as being “ritualised”, with perpetrators seeking to legitimise their actions by reference to their religious beliefs. This is clearly a different phenomenon from the idea of a massive Satanic conspiracy involving mass molestations and murders, but it muddies the waters and makes the entire issue more difficult to explore, particularly in a dispassionate manner.

The Warburg Institute. Photograph by Philafrenzy, Wikimedia
Two days later, on Thursday 7th July, the Warburg Institute played host to “Magical Traditions and Medieval Religions of the Book”, a one-day workshop organised by UCL’s Sophie Page on behalf of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE). The event was designed primarily for MA and PhD students, and included a session on doctoral and early career advice (special thanks must go out to Egil Asprem and Liana Saif for their recommendations on how to secure post-doctoral funding, something of particular concern to me). However, the event also contained lectures from a number of guest speakers, including Siam Bhayro from Exeter University on his research into the Jewish Aramaic inscriptions on the so-called ‘magic bowls’ of late antique Mesopotamia, Saif on the place of magic in Medieval Islam, and Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov from the University of Manchester on Slavic amulet books from the Balkans. This was then followed by a keynote from Jean-Patrice Boudet of the University of Orleans, in which he spoke on the different ways in which magical traditions were approached in Medieval Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was great to see how well attended the event was, particularly given that this was ESSWE’s first event to be held in London. The first of many, perhaps?

Despite being a major global hub and home to some of the world’s foremost universities, London has arguably lagged behind many other parts of the Western world when it comes to the academic study of contemporary Paganism and esotericism. Over the past few decades, the study of Western esotericism has begun to blossom in much of continental Europe while the study of Paganism has advanced in the United States, but Britain – perhaps because of its weaker institutional framework for the study of religion than many other Western nations – hasn’t quite kept up. I’m really hoping that the events which we have seen in London this summer, alongside the Cambridge conference last year, reflect that that is changing. Britain, and indeed London itself, has played a crucial role in the development of many Pagan and occult traditions, from Wicca and Druidry to Thelema and the New Age movement, and so it is only apt that this nation and this city also comes to be seen as an important centre for the study of these fascinating phenomena.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Two forthcoming conferences for Medievalists and archaeologists

This is just a quick plug to advertise two forthcoming conferences, both of which I am involved with in some capacity and both of which are being held at University College London (UCL) in central London over the next month.

The first is scheduled to take place at UCL this coming weekend (11th - 12th June) and is devoted to the subject of “Medieval Sexualities”. The two-day event is organised under the auspices of the North/Early Medieval Interdisciplinary Conference Series (NEMICS), with yours truly being one of the co-organisers. The program can be found online here, and thanks to a pot of university funding this event is 100% free, so if it sounds like your thing then do register and come along for the weekend (or just one day!).

The second event is a one-day symposium organised by Murray Andrews, to be held at the UCL Institute of Archaeology on Wednesday 22th June. Its title is “Coins, Hoards, and Special Deposits: Current Research”, and it will feature a range of scholars dealing with archaeological depositions in various periods of the past, from the Bronze Age right through to the present day (including me talking about my recent research into well veneration and deposition in Anglo-Saxon England). This sounds like it’s going to be a really interesting day and it too is free, so again, if this is your cup of tea then please do come along; you can register here.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

New Publication: "Lucifer Over Luxor: Archaeology, Egyptology, and Occultism in Kenneth Anger's Magick Lantern Cycle"

Just a quick note to point any of my readers over in the direction of a new publication of mine – “Lucifer Over Luxor: Archaeology, Egyptology, and Occultism in Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle” – which has just appeared in the academic journal Present Pasts. The article is based on a paper which I presented at the “Monstrous Antiquities: Archaeology and the Uncanny” conference, held at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology back in November 2013. One of the primary reasons why I chose to submit the manuscript to this particular journal was because it’s open access, and thus all of its articles can be read online for free (or downloaded as a PDF – also for free!), which is a massive benefit in a world where most academic publications are locked behind paywalls. The subject matter is of course a little niche for most people, but I hope it will intrigue anyone with an interest in the use of archaeology and heritage in either twentieth-century occultism or in experimental cinema. For those interested in giving it a read, the link to the journal website can be found here, or alternately, I have uploaded a copy to my account here. Enjoy!

Friday, 19 February 2016

My Guest Post on Margaret Murray

This is just a quick note to point readers in the direction of  Dr. Kathleen Sheppard’s blog, “Adventures in History and Archaeology”, where I have been kindly invited to provide a guest post on the subject of “Margaret Murray: The Godmother of Wicca”. The post comes off the back of my own researches into Wicca and its thematic intersection with Sheppard’s research into Murray’s life, the latter of which resulted in the first full-length posthumous biography of this fascinating woman, available online. It is a book that I would definitely recommend for anyone interested in Murray’s career in Egyptology and archaeology -- those of you with institutional access or subscriptions can read my full review of it over at Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism here.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Feminism and Fortean Times

As I outlined in a previous post, last November I attended Seriously Bewitched, a conference organised by the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP), in order to give a talk on “The New Witches of the West”, a discussion of how the image of the witch came to be reclaimed in the twentieth century by practitioners of both Wicca and Satanism. During the day, I was briefly interviewed by the Reverend Peter Laws, a journalist and Baptist minister who has subsequently written up a piece on the day for the February 2016 issue of Fortean Times (featuring a photograph of yours truly, no less, alongside images of fellow speakers Helen Cornish, Charmaine Sonnex, and Bekie Bird). It came as something of a surprise for me to learn of my appearance in the magazine, but was undoubtedly a pleasant one, particularly as Fortean Times was a favourite read of mine as a child. 

In his review, Laws picked up on an incident which occurred at the conference and which I have mulled over in my head several times over the past few months. It all started in the Q&A session after my talk, when a young woman asked me what I thought about the reclamation of the crone as an image of women’s power within feminist-oriented forms of Wicca. In responding to her, I said that I was more than happy to share my knowledge on the usage of the crone within Wicca, however I stated that I did not want to say whether I thought that the use of the crone image by feminist women was a good thing or not. The reason for that, I explained, was because – as a man – I did not feel that it was my place to say what feminist activists should be doing to advance the feminist cause. 

This comment almost immediately resulted in disquiet among the audience. A number of voices began to call out “why can’t you speak for feminists?”, “what are you saying?” etc. Something that I thought was particularly interesting was that – as far as I could tell – every one of these comments came from a man, despite the fact that the audience was majority female. At least one of those commenting clearly thought that I was anti-feminist, but English was not his first language and it was quite apparent that he simply misunderstood what I was saying; he apologised privately to me afterward, and was clearly a nice fellow. However, I am not sure that all of the other commenters thought that I was being anti-feminist; rather, from the context in which they spoke, I suspect that some of them were shocked by the idea that a man should not speak for feminism. Perhaps they thought that I was symbolically castrating men of their right to freedom of speech? 

Laws' assessment of the situation
However, here I want to return to this issue, because it is something that I do feel fairly strongly about. Feminism focuses on the advancement of women’s rights and status in society in an attempt to secure equality with men; thus it is a movement for the liberation of women. Accordingly I believe that it should be led by women, dominated by women, and have its agenda set by women. Not by men like me. That doesn’t mean that men can have no opinions on this issue and should be prohibited from involvement in feminist issues (indeed, I would hope that feminist women do pay attention to male viewpoints, because it will allow them a more rounded understanding of the male-dominated system from differing perspectives and thus enable them to more effectively counter it). I would of course say the same thing for other liberationist movements; I don’t think that white people should really speak for the black liberation movement, straight people for the gay liberation movement, or wealthy people for the working-class liberation movement. Each marginalised group should set the agenda for its own struggle, even if that struggle is assisted by members of non-marginalised (or at least less-marginalised) sectors of society.  

To clarify my position, I believe that – in an ideal society – men and women (and those who find themselves outside of that binary paradigm too) should be totally equal, in practice as much as in theory. For that reason I support feminism. However, whether I am a “feminist” or not depends on the definition that one chooses to use. If by “feminist” you mean someone who supports the feminist cause, then yes I am a feminist. However, if by “feminist” you mean someone who is proactively involved in fighting for the feminist cause, then no I am probably not a feminist. I certainly try to ensure that I don’t get in the way of feminist activism and I try to live my life according to feminist principles, but at the end of the day I’m not a member of feminist organisations, I don’t march in feminist rallies, and I don’t take part in other obviously feminist activist activities. At most I engage in a bit of armchair activism, sign a few petitions, recognise and acknowledge my male privilege, ignore the restraints of gendered stereotypes, and try to ensure that I treat everyone equally regardless of their gender identity.

At the same time I would be lying if I said that I don’t raise an eyebrow at some of the more extreme manifestations of the feminist movement, particularly those sectors which appear hostile, aggressive, belittling or condescending to all men, highly prejudiced toward transwomen, or just plain nasty to other women who happen to disagree with them (for instance through the demonization and bullying of pro-life feminists); over the past few years, I have encountered all three of these tendencies. For instance, I am left a little uneasy by the tagline “kill all men” or “kill all white men”, which is currently en vogue among some sectors of the feminist milieu; even if it seems unlikely that many (or even any) of those expressing such a statement seriously endorse such a genocidal course of action, the connotations (and unintended consequences) of such sweeping and hostile statements are cause for concern. Similarly, I’m not fond of the tendency among some activists to dismiss any and all male perspectives regarding feminism or gender issues out of hand, often as “mansplaining” or “male tears”, without at all addressing the substance of said opinions, a textbook case of ad hominem argumentation.* I worry that these extreme manifestations of feminism will ultimately prove counter-productive to the feminist cause by feeding into the preconceived notions held by more conservative sectors of society, by alienating otherwise sympathetic men, and by contributing to the burn out of those feminist activists who disagree with such extreme perspectives (again, things that I have personally seen happen).

Perhaps there is a little hypocrisy here: after all, I am claiming that I don’t think that I or other men should speak for feminism despite the fact that I am expressing criticism of certain manifestations of feminism. For me it’s a difficult situation to reconcile, but I try to summarise it with the thought that as a man, I’m not going to say what is the right way to do feminism, because it isn’t my place to do so; nevertheless, I do fear that there is a wrong (or at least counter-productive) way to do feminism, and while I’m not going to go about publicly challenging those who embrace these latter approaches, I will not hide my misgivings if asked. 

By this point, perhaps some readers might be asking themselves: “well, if he says that he can’t speak for feminism, why is he posting about the subject on his blog to start with? Isn’t this more hypocrisy?” There may be some truth to that thought. Normally, I don’t use Albion Calling as a vehicle for the expression of my own socio-political views, regarding feminism or anything else; it’s usually just a space to talk about academic stuff to do with magic, ritual, and the preternatural. That being said, the fact that the controversy at the ASSAP conference has now been made public through the medium of Fortean Times resulted in me feeling that I really did want to publicly say my piece on this issue, clarifying my perspective in my own words and smoothing over any misunderstandings that have arisen. Hopefully that has been achieved.

* =  This isn’t to say that the concept of “mansplaining” as it was originally conceived doesn’t have value, for I think that it does. I’ve seen various instances where men have acted in an intellectually condescending manner toward women, even when those women are themselves clearly far better educated in the topic being discussed than the condescending man himself (although equally I’ve seen men act in the same manner to other men, women to other women, and indeed women to men, so I don’t think the phenomenon is inherently as explicitly gendered as the term “mansplaining” suggests). That being said, I’ve also seen the term “mansplaining” divorced from its original meaning in order to be used, particularly online, as little more than a catch-all anti-male pejorative to silence any opposition to a particular activist’s opinion; in these instances it can be used to shut down debate without the need to actually present any counter-argument, and given its gendered connotations it thus very much fits within the dubious realms of ad hominem argumentation.

[Some additional points were added to this article in April 2016, after further contemplation on the issue.]

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

New Publication: "An' it Harm None, Do What Ye Will" in Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 10(2)

Only a few weeks after my first book – Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft – went on sale, a new publication of mine has just been popped through the letterbox. This time, it’s a research article that has been printed in volume 10, issue 2 of the academic journal Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Titled ““An’ it Harm None: Do What Ye Will”: A Historical Analysis of the Wiccan Rede”, the paper represents the first concerted attempt within an academic context to examine the Rede’s development during the 1940s-70s. As I explain in the article’s abstract:

In the 1950s, the English occultist Gerald Gardner (1884–1964) began propagating a magico-religious tradition now known as Gardnerian Witchcraft. At the foreground of a contemporary Pagan new religious movement that soon gained the name of “Wicca,” Gardner came to greatly influence the practices of hundreds of thousands of Wiccans across the Western world. Today, a common element of Wiccan belief is an ethical commandment known as the “Wiccan Rede”, usually articulated in a form akin to “an’ it harm none, do what ye will”, which seeks to guide practitioners in both magical and mundane affairs. But where did this Rede come from, and how did it develop? This research article seeks to answer those questions by undertaking a historical analysis of ethical beliefs within the early Wiccan movement. Examining Gardner's own evolving ethical beliefs with regards to the use of magic, it then examines how his initiate Doreen Valiente came to first proclaim the Rede at a prominent Pagan gathering in October 1964. It then analyzes the influence that the Thelemic Law of Aleister Crowley exerted on the wording of the Rede, before discussing its wider reception within the Wiccan movement and why practitioners of many rival traditions chose to reject it.

This latest issue of the journal does not appear to have been uploaded online to Project MUSE just yet, but keep an eye out here, where I hope that it should be appearing in the next few days!

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Some Thoughts on the ASSAP conference, "Seriously Bewitched"

Yesterday I attended (and spoke at) a one-day public conference titled “Seriously Bewitched”, organised by the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomenon (ASSAP) and held on the premises of Goldsmiths, University of London, an academic institution based in southeast London’s New Cross. As its title suggested, the conference was devoted to the subject of witchcraft, both in its historical and contemporary manifestations. Given ASSAP’s remit, the conference was not strictly academic (although there were many academics present), and instead it aimed to reach a much wider audience including quite a number of people who were personally involved in forms of modern religious Witchcraft. This broad church approach undoubtedly had its benefits in bringing together divergent opinions and perspectives in a spirit of dialogue, although at times it also resulted in some vocal disagreement, particularly from attendees who weren’t particularly familiar with the nature of academic scholarship or the realities of what historically constituted “witchcraft”.

The event kicked off with some opening remarks from Professor Chris French, a psychologist based at Goldsmiths who has a particular interest in the critical study of paranormal phenomenon; for me, it was particularly intriguing to finally meet Professor French in the flesh as I remember him being a talking head on television shows about the paranormal when I was a child. He was followed by Deborah Hyde, his successor as editor of The Skeptic magazine, who used her talk to delve into the Roman Catholic Church’s response to Medieval heresy, discussing how that phenomenon impacted on the later witch trials of the Early Modern period. Sticking with those trials, we then had Christian Jensen Romer, a self-professed evangelical Christian, offer a discussion of the witch trials that took place both in Eastern England at the urging of Matthew Hopkins and those that took place in Salem, Massachusetts. Seeking to turn commonly held notions upon their head, he pointed out that many of those most active in carrying out these persecutions were highly educated men working on a rationalist basis – he even compared them, perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek, to ASSAP members – while also noting that it was Puritan preachers who were among the most vocal critics of the trials.

It was my turn after lunch, as I focused on “The New Witches of the West”, looking at the development of Wicca – in both its British Traditional and later Dianic variants – as well as modern Satanism, before exploring quite why many modern day people choose to identify as “witches” when that term is so loaded with historical baggage. Given that I was feeling a little under-the-weather, I chose to read from a script rather than speak without one, however I got a fair bit of positive feedback nevertheless (although I was somewhat lost for words when one audience member started insisting that a secret cabal of Satanists rule the world…). I was followed by Dr. Helen Cornish of Goldsmiths, who discussed the fascinating case of Joan Wytte, “the Fighting Fairy Woman of Bodmin”, whose alleged physical remains had been displayed at Cecil Williamson’s Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall for many years. Returning to the subject of modern Pagan Witchcraft, PhD candidate Charmaine Sonnex then discussed some of her ongoing work on how modern British Pagans (into which she includes British Traditional Wiccans, eclectic solitary Wiccans, and Druids) conduct magic spells and how they believe that such spells work.

Moving into the evening session, the Wiccan High Priestess Bekie Bird provided a biographical overview of her own life, discussing key events in her childhood and adolescence that led her onto the Pagan path, and talking about her beliefs pertaining to magic and spirituality. Finally, independent folklorist Mark Norman ended the day with a talk on what he termed “Traditional Witchcraft” – meaning both historical folk magic and those contemporary esotericists who self-designate as “Traditional Witches” – focusing in particular on how “Traditional Witchcraft” has been presented by Gemma Gary of the Cornish-based coven Ros an Bucca. All in all, it was an interesting day that brought together many interesting people and interesting talks, and my thanks must be extended to its organisers. For those interested, the next themed ASSAP conference, “Seriously Enchanted”, will be devoted to fairy lore and will take place at The Academy, Holiday Inn, in Bristol on 12 March 2016.