Thursday 27 December 2012

An Interview with Chas S. Clifton

Hot on the heels of my earlier interview with Dr. Dave Evans, today I talk with Chas S. Clifton, the American academic who remains one of the most important figures in the interdisciplinary academic field known as Pagan Studies. The author of Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America (2006), the first historical study of this new religious movement in the United States, since 2004 he has also operated as editor of both The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, a peer-reviewed academic journal, and of AltaMira’s Pagan Studies series of books, being at the forefront of research into this ever-expanding subject. I ask him about these various ventures, and what life has been like for him as both a Pagan and an academic in the United States.

Clifton (bottom-centre, in the hat) at a Pagan festival

[EDW] In your publications, you are open about having been a practising Pagan since at least your undergraduate days back in Portland, Oregon. How did you first become involved in this new religious movement, then a relatively new phenomenon in American popular consciousness? Did you begin by going it alone as a solitary practitioner or were you first involved in a coven or other group? Furthermore, what would you describe as your own personal Pagan path today?

[CSC] I was one of those people who got involved by reading a book, because I certainly knew no Pagan practitioners in the early 1970s. In my case, I was 21, an undergraduate, working on a summer job helping one of my former teachers to build a large adobe house near Taos, New Mexico. One evening, when he and his partner had gone backpacking for a couple of days, I was examining his book collection and found Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. I knew nothing about it, yet something seemed to tickle my mind and say, “You were supposed to read this.” So I did—in two evenings. I know that the book’s literary scholarship is suspect, but the first chapters were really enough for me. Suddenly it seemed that there was a religion for poets (as I then fancied myself), one that did not revolve around renunciation nor seem to end at the city limits, with nothing to say about the non-human world. I went back for my final year at Reed College and read virtually everything Graves had written. Reed required an undergraduate thesis, and mine was a book of poems titled Queen Famine, which comes from a line of his. Later I performed a self-initiation rite, taken from another book (Hans Holzer’s The New Pagans)! It worked. (Link:

It was another eighteen months or so later and after a move from Oregon back to Colorado when I connected with my first group, which was actually a lodge of would-be Thelemic magicians. I learned the basics of their system, but it did not really touch my heart. The next year I connected with a Colorado coven—if you have read Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, it’s the Colorado group described in the first chapter. Things progressed from there.

For a few years, my wife (we were joined in public Pagan wedding 35 years ago) and I were involved with that coven and later with our own. In the mid-1980s “some god or daemon” told me to go to graduate school (I had worked mainly as a newspaper and magazine journalist), and at the same time I started my own “zine,” Iron Mountain: A Journal of Magical Religion. (Later Fritz Muntean would tell me that it helped to inspire him to start The Pomegranate in the 1990s.) Mary and I sold our house in Manitou Springs, Colorado, and went off to Boulder, where I was attending the University of Colorado and (surprise!) working part-time at a publishing company. After graduate school, I was less involved in group magical work. Now I typically attend a festival or two a year and try to just blend into the crowd—to be one of the guys carrying in the pine tree Maypole or something like that. My own practice is quirky and sort of animistic.

[EDW] After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in English and Creative Writing from Reed College, and then a master’s degree in Religious Studies from the University of Colorado, you entered into an academic career teaching English at both Pueblo Community College and Colorado State University–Pueblo. At work, were you “out of the broom closet”, and if so, did you face much opposition or prejudice as a result of your religious beliefs, as some other academics have done?

[CSC] In the typical university I think that any religious involvement is seen as intellectually suspect—a big wobbly—although one might get a pass for Reform Judaism or Zen Buddhism—anything that seems intellectual yet non-threatening.

I did not make a point of being “out of the closet,” although my academic writing on Paganism was right there in my c.v., and Her Hidden Children was on the display table at the annual reception for faculty publications. For most of my time at CSU-Pueblo in the Dept. of English and Foreign Languages I had an excellent department chair who supported my work in studying religion, financed travel to the extent that his budget permitted so on. One of the reasons that I left that job ten or twelve years before normal retirement age was that he was retiring himself, and the future did not look as good.

[EDW] In the 1990s, you decided to turn your attention towards Paganism, and edited a four-part Witchcraft Today series for Llewellyn through which you showcased a wide variety of Pagan authors. What was this particular experience like, and did it influence you in your later work in helping to build the academic field of Pagan Studies?

[CSC] Starting in about 1986, I became a regular writer and reviewer—a “contributing editor”—for Gnosis: The Journal of Western Inner Traditions, a wonderful quarterly that was published for about fourteen years in San Francisco. In addition, I began doing more column-writing for various Pagan zines—“Letter from Hardscrabble Creek” was originally a self-syndicated column before it became a blog in 2003. Around 1990 I was contacted by Carl Weschcke, president of the metaphysical publishing house Llewellyn Worldwide, who invited me to edit this series that he had in mind. These books were for practitioners, but I did try to keep them intellectually honest—for example, I forbade the use of such phrases as “It is said that . . .” or “Legend has it . . . .” One of the best things about editing the series, of course, was getting to know the contributors, for instance, Evan John Jones or Felicitas Goodman, the Hungarian-born anthropologist turned hands-on shamanism teacher.

[EDW] During your career, you’ve met and worked with various significant figures within the Pagan and occult movements. To my mind, perhaps the most notable was Evan John Jones, the successor of Robert Cochrane, with whom you co-wrote Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance (1997), a book for practising Pagans published by Llewellyn. What has it been like working with such eminent figures, and are there any particularly notable experiences that you feel you’d like to share?

[CSC] John Jones was a friend by correspondence at first, although I finally did meet him and his wife, Val, in 1999 and spent several days with him in Brighton. Unfortunately, walking long distances was beginning to be difficult for him then and it was winter when I was there, so we did not get to visit some of his favorite sites. We did talk a great deal, and of course Cochrane was one of the topics—he gave me a group photo of Cochrane’s coven c. 1965, which I prize and which hangs on my study wall. One interesting thing is that while I have heard a great deal about Cochrane’s so-called “ritual suicide,” in John’s view, the main reason for it was the breakup of his marriage—and with it, the coven—and it was accomplished with whisky and sleeping pills, rather conventionally, not nightshade wine. John was also an old soldier with a keen interest in military history, so if you could hold up your end of the conversation, you were as likely to find  yourself talking about Napoleonic-era infantry tactics or something like that as about witchcraft. I have met more “eminent figures” who were down-to-earth than those who want to dazzle you with their mysterious powers—not to say that the latter do not exist. A phrase that I heard at one of the large Colorado Pagan festivals sticks with me: “You can tell the elders—they’re the ones in blue jeans.” In other words, not in flowing robes or crushed velvet gowns.

[EDW] You have already earned your own place in history as a “founding father” of Pagan Studies, being well known as the editor of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, the only peer-reviewed, academic journal devoted to this multidisciplinary field. Taking over as editor of The Pomegranate (then subtitled A New Journal of Neopagan Thought) from one of its founders, Fritz Muntean, after it went on a hiatus in 2001, it was you who helped relaunch it through Equinox Publishing as the academic journal that it is today, back in 2004. How did you come to adopt the mantle of editor, and what was the process of transforming the journal in an academic direction like?

[CSC] Actually, I like to call Aidan Kelly the founder of Pagan Studies, although I helped a bit by publishing him in Iron Mountain c. 1986. His friend Fritz Muntean was another of the founders of the West Coast Pagan revival in the 1960s in northern California, and later quite involved with the Craft scene in British Columbia after emigrating to Canada in the 1970s. After a career as a builder and craftsman, he entered the University of British Columbia to complete his bachelor’s degree and then pursue as master’s in religious studies. He started The Pomegranate as a serious journal for practitioners, and I had contributed something to it. (We still had not met face to face at that time, although we had many friends in common.)

Eventually he started urging me to take a larger role. From my earlier experience with Iron Mountain, I knew that it was hard to get a self-published journal into academic indexing services, etc., and I argued that we should make it a peer-reviewed journal publishing by a known publisher. During the American Academy of Religion meeting in 2001, we approached several, and Janet Joyce, who was just preparing to form Equinox, agreed to publish it if we could wait for her to complete her arrangements, which of course we did.

[EDW] Within Pagan Studies, your most significant publication is undoubtedly Her Hidden Children (AltaMira, 2006), the first published history of the contemporary Pagan movement in the United States. What made you decide to take on this daunting task, and how did you personally find the experience of producing such a pioneering work?

[CSC] I had at least twenty-five years’ worth of books, little ephemeral magazines, and correspondence files—I had to do something with it! A major question of my life, going back to age ten or eleven, is how are we to related to the non-human world? It bothered me as a child that aside from a prayer for rain and an occasional blessing of animals or something, the Anglican Christianity I was raised in seemed to say nothing at all. Nor did the other denominations. Paganism seemed more promising, yet Wicca, in particular, had come to North America in the 1950s as books and in the 1960s as people and had primarily presented itself as a surviving ancient fertility religion. Yet somehow people started using the terms “nature religion” or “earth religions,” and so my questions were how and why did those terms arise. I do not claim the definitive answer, but at least I made a start at it.

[EDW] You are also the editor of the Pagan Studies Series of books over at AltaMira Publishing, as well as the co-chair of the American Academy of Religion’s (AAR) Pagan Studies Group. How did your role in these endeavours come about, and what progress do you feel that they are making for the academic study of Paganism?

[CSC] These two things happened almost simultaneously. The book series was thought up by an editor at AltaMira who had been on the fringes of the discussion, from around 1998–2000, about how to have both the academic study of Paganism and of “nature spirituality” in a non-theistic way represented within the AAR. That editor, however, lost his job, as did his replacement (such is publishing), and eventually my then-co-editor, Wendy Griffin, and I decided to find at better home for the series, which was Equinox, who were already backing The Pomegranate.

Meanwhile, an informal meeting at the AAR’s annual meeting in 1995 brought together people (many who frequently showed up at sessions on new religious movements) who were interested in the academic study of Paganism. In 1997 we met and decided to try to become an official AAR program unit—I remember that Graham Harvey was one of those pushing for it.

We were turned down on the grounds that we had not demonstrated that our work could not be fit into other units, e.g., the New Religious Movements Group. For the next few years we than organized “additional meetings,” where by paying a small fee anyone can have a meeting scheduled a day before the official start of the annual meeting. In those sessions people presented papers, held panel discussions, and otherwise acted like a bona fide program unit. Then in 2004 we re-applied and were accepted, and we have passed two Program Committee reviews since then. Every year we try to hold at least one joint session with, for instance, groups focusing on indigenous religions, ritual studies, religion and ecology, or our old friends in new religious movements. Jone Salomonsen of the University of Oslo (author of Enchanted Feminism) and I are the co-chairs, and there is a six-member steering committee.

Jone and I have felt from the beginning that Pagan studies is not so much about this group or that, but about Paganism as a way of being religious. For example, we have had presentations that focused on the treatment of images in a Pagan setting and in Mediterranean Catholic settings, which leads to joking about “the i-word” (idolatry) and to discussions of whether it is useful and usable in a scholarly setting or whether one would do better to adopt some term like “sacred materiality.”

[EDW] You’re currently busy with both the aforementioned projects and with your own blog, Letters from Hardscrabble Creek, but what I’m sure many of my readers would be eager to hear is whether there are there any new projects or publications on the horizon? I hear tell of a book on flying ointments?

[CSC] Back in the 1970s, the anthropologist and neo-shaman Michael Harner advanced the view that the witch-trial reports of flying ointments indicated the existence of a genuine, underground, European shamanism. I believed him. Now I am not so sure. Nevertheless, flying ointment has important symbolic uses in discussions of both historic and contemporary witchcraft. For one thing, its use—or purported use—is used to maintain boundaries between certain types of practitioners, and that bears on the revival of so-called traditional, or non-Wiccan, Craft. And it might also work as a way to discuss theories of religious secrecy—I am just getting my research underway there.

[EDW] On a final note, I’d like to ask you, in your capacity as a practitioner-scholar with many years experience, in what direction you see the academic field of Pagan Studies developing over the next few decades? In particular, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on some of the recent criticisms of the field, both from within the Pagan community, and from academics such as Markus Altena Davidsen?

[CSC] Davidsen’s criticism was apt as far as it went, although it was based only on one book that did not necessarily display the methodological atheism that he would advocate. What he apparently does not realize is that these outsider/insider issues come up all the time at our AAR sessions, for example. But he is not there, he is in Denmark. Yes, the AAR has its roots in the theological (insider) study of religion yet incorporates many people who come in as outsiders. That tension is there, although it is ignored most of the time. We in Pagan studies have always been sensitive to any charge that we might be advancing some kind of Pagan-practitioner agenda. We have even scheduled our own “What’s wrong with Pagan studies?” session for our 2013 meeting. But I think that anyone doing “BLANK Studies” should be sensitive and reflexive about such criticisms.

As for the future, I make no predictions other than to assume that the field will continue to grow. Outside events cause changes within the academy too. At the November 2001 AAR meeting, it was amazing to see how every neglected backlist book on Islam was displayed prominently in publishers’ booths—and there are more sessions on Islamic topics than there were then.

[EDW] Thank you, Chas, for taking the time out to talk to us today.

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