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 eminent American academic who remains one of the most important figures in the multidisciplinary 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 (in the sunglasses and Indiana Jones hat),
 at a recent 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 ?

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 ?

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 & 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 your Pagan faith, 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 fashion the academic field of Pagan Studies ?

Clifton's edited volume
Copyright Llewellyn.
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: Many of my readers may be familiar with Goodman as the translator of Hans Peter Duerr's Dreamtime].

EDW: During your career, you've met and worked with a wide range of significant figures within the Pagan and esoteric movements. To my mind, perhaps the most notable was Evan John Jones, the successor to 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?

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 ?

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 the field of 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 ?

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 ?

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...

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 ?

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 [EDW: just after the militant Islamist attacks of September 11], 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.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Midwinter Solstice!

Stonehenge, Midwinter 2011.
Along with being the end of the world long prophecised by the ancient Maya, today is also the Midwinter Solstice, the shortest day - and hence longest night - of the year, a liminal period of great importance to many groups across the world. From now on, the hours of daylight will steadily increase, as winter gives way to the birth of spring.

Last year, myself and several others from the UCL Institute of Archaeology got up at an obscenely early hour in the morning to travel via minibus from Bloomsbury in Central London to Wiltshire, where we witnessed the Midwinter sunrise at Stonehenge, the great Late Neolithic/Bronze Age megalithic structure famed for its solstice-alignments, identified by William Stukeley several centuries ago. Now a "sacred site" for members of the Pagan and New Age communities, the monument - managed by English Heritage - becomes open access to the public for only two days of the year; Midwinter, and the rather more crowded Midsummer. Braving the freezing temperatures, Stonehenge at Midwinter is certainly a memorable experience, and a chance to see this great symbol of British archaeology in all its majesty. It is also an intriguing experience to witness members of new religious movements re-adopt the ritual monuments of long-extinct societies for their own contemporary spiritual needs; a sense of re-cycling the past, perhaps.

Last year, one reveller came as an 'Obby 'Os
Although I'm staying indoors and in the warm at the moment, according to BBC News, the festivities are going on at Stonehenge this year too! It has of course become a tradition in its own right, with Pagan Druidic groups organising their own rituals at the site to welcome the rising sun, while many other onlookers and tourists flock to the monument for other reasons. Last year, I remember seeing members of a wide variety of different subcultural groups, including the Druids, New Age travellers, Hare Krsna's and fellow archaeologists; some of the latter were clearly perturbed by the activities of the other, more "eccentric" groups. However, despite the contrasting ideological positions, particularly regarding the meaning and ongoing significance of Stonehenge, all remained peaceful and I witnessed no arguments or hostility breaking out. Hopefully this should be taken as a sign that Pagans and archaeologists really can work together harmoniously for the preservation of Britain's prehistoric heritage. Maybe I should make that my New Year's wish.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

"Staffordshire Hoard II: The Return of the Treasure Hoard" and Big NRM Trouble in Little China...

Please forgive the terrible puns, but I've just come across two news stories that might be of interest to readers of this blog, one on the subject of Anglo-Saxon archaeology, the other on the topic of a new religious movement (NRM) in China.

In Staffordshire, England, a second hoard of Anglo-Saxon metal has been uncovered close to the site where the "Staffordshire Hoard" - the most significant Anglo-Saxon discovery of recent years - was found. The hope can only be that it will shine yet more light on the enigmatic world of Early Mediaeval England.

In other news, the Communist Party government of the People's Republic of China have orchestrated a crackdown on members of an apocalyptic new religious movement (NRM) calling itself "God Almighty". A Christian denomination, the God Almighty sect claim that Jesus Christ was reincarnated as a Chinese woman, and have been active in their calls for the overthrow of the regime, echoing that made by other NRMs like Falun Gong in recent years. In particular, they have been very vocal in their belief that the end of the world is nigh; something they seem to have adopted from the whole Mayan prophecy malarkey. 

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

A trip to White Horse Hill and the latest news on Britain's Pagan census figures...

Yesterday, on a trip back from a weekend visiting family in the West Country, I popped into Oxfordshire to explore a prehistoric landscape that had long intrigued me: White Horse Hill. Now under the stewardship of The National Trust, a charity devoted to the preservation of Britain's heritage, the lengthy ridge stretches along a picturesque length of chalk downland, with wonderful panoramic views facing toward the south. White Horse Hill has been a very special place for the local communities who have inhabited this area for millennia. Standing upon its crest and looking out across the landscape, it is easy to see why. The majestic views, coupled with the enigma of how such a phenomenal geographical feature had come into existence, must surely have led those of a supernatural bent to develop rich mythologies and folkloric tales about this place, alluding to the agency of ancestors, gods or monsters. 
Wrapped up to protect from the biting December
winds, here I am at the top of the White Horse (whose head is just
visible); ahead of me is the Dragon Mound, legendary burial
of King Uther Pendragon; believed to be a natural feature,
its top has been leveled out through human agency. 
Throughout later British prehistory - a staggering period of time encompassing the New Stone Age ("Neolithic"), Bronze Age and Iron Age - the communities who lived and died here in Oxfordshire considered the Hill to be of sufficient importance to warrant the construction of a number of impressive monuments upon its crest. The youngest was a hillfort now known as Uffington Castle, apparently constructed in the Late Bronze or Iron Age; the impressive ramparts are still visible, with sheep grazing in and around it, much as they probably would have done throughout later prehistory. Older still was the neighbouring White Horse of Uffington, the geoglyph which gives the hill its name. Recently dated to the Bronze Age, it's a wonderful piece of prehistoric artwork, and most probably had ritual importance of some sort. Despite the steep treck and biting cold December winds, it is possible for the visitor to make their way up to the very top of the great horse, offering a thoroughly enrapturing experience that I would not hesitate to recommend.
Weyland's Smithy, as I approached it from the south-east,
in the winter twilight.
However, the oldest feature of interest on the hill was Weyland's Smithy, an Early Neolithic chambered tomb that when first constructed, would have (most probably) been the center of an ancestor cult that helped the local communities cement their connection to the land, which they had only recently begun to turn over to agriculture. Significant members of the community would have had their bodies excarnated before being placed within the tomb's chamber, quite possibly accompanied with certain magico-religious rites. At least a mile's walk west of the aforementioned two monuments, the tomb can be reached by way of a winding country road, which I traversed as the winter sun was setting and flocks of crows swooped across the sky; a wonderfully atmospheric experience. Although I have visited other chambered tombs from this era before - such as West Kennet Long Barrow and the Coldrum Stones - I think that Weyland's Smithy has to be my favourite, largely due to its enigmatic position in the landscape and its largely complete, albeit reconstructed, nature. Now situated within a grove of trees and surrounded by ploughed farmland, it is difficult to envision what the tomb would have originally been like, making a phenomenological study largely impossible, but it is instead possible to comprehend something of how recent spiritual seekers - most notably members of the Pagan movement - might approach this "sacred site", for them a place of pilgrimage. Their presence is obvious, with runic images having been chalked onto some of the megaliths, and carved into neighbouring trees; a Heathen link to the fact that the pagan Anglo-Saxon communities of this area associated what was even then an ancient monument with Weyland, the blacksmith deity. 
The megalithic entrance to Weyland's Smithy; although largely
reconstructed, it helps to give an impression of the original
Early Neolithic architecture.
White Horse Hill is hardly the household name that Stonehenge, and to a lesser extent Avebury, has become in recent decades. I for one consider this to be a great shame, for it is one of Southern Britain's great prehistoric gems, and I think that it would be nice if it was better known among the contemporary peoples of Southern Britain. As it stands, knowledge of the hill and its wonders are probably restricted to the local inhabitants, and to sectors of the Pagan and archaeological communities. Perhaps in future years, in an improved economic climate, The National Trust might be able to open up a visitor's centre on the hill, near to the car park, allowing the story of this fascinating place to be presented to a wider slice of the public. 

Pagans in the United Kingdom: The 2011 Census Results

Also of interest to many of my readers will be the newly released information that has just been published from the 2011 United Kingdom census which was undertaken last year. According to the respondents of this nation-wide survey, on which the "religion" category was optional, around 80,000 people currently either describe their spiritual path as "Pagan" or use a related term, such as "Wiccan", "Thelemite", "Shaman" etc. That's roughly double the number who did so the decade before: in the 2001 census, around 42,000 inhabitants of Great Britain and Northern Ireland had decided to classify themselves as "Pagan" or something similar, a number that made it the seventh largest religious group in the country but which many analysts thought was surprisingly low.

Inside the chamber of Weyland's
Smithy: place of ancestral spirits ?
I very much doubt that the actual number of self-described Pagans has doubled in the U.K. during this relatively short period; far more likely is that increasing numbers of the Pagan community are becoming more comfortable in publicly admitting their faith, explaining the statistics. This of course goes hand in hand with the increasing governmental and social recognition of contemporary Paganisms as a valid and harmless - if perhaps eccentric - form of religious belief. We can see the symptoms of this in the popularity of television series such as Charmed or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and in The Charity Commission's 2010 decision to recognise Druidry as a religion deserving of tax-exempt status. Ultimately, I would suspect that the country's Pagan community is actually much larger than the census indicates, with many Pagans choosing not to fill in the "religion" section - seeing it with suspicion as a form of government surveillance - while those who follow a dual-faith observance might describe themselves simply as "Christian", "Spiritualist" or "Jewish", even if they blend those beliefs with Pagan elements in a syncretic manner. Clearly, this is an area where sociologists of religion can delve further.

For more information, check out the latest blog post over at The Wild Hunt site, an excellent Pagan-run blog all about... well, Paganism.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

An Interview with Dr. Dave Evans

Today, I talk to Dr. Dave Evans, an independent academic who has added greatly to the study of western esotericism in recent years. The author of both Aleister Crowley and the 20th Century Synthesis of Magic (2001) and The History of British Magick After Crowley (2007), he was also the co-editor of Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon (2009) and has published articles and papers in a wide range of different sources, both academic and popular, over the past decade or so. Furthermore, he was the mastermind behind both the Journal for the Academic Study of Magic and the Academic Study of Magic list-serve, both of which have been of real importance in bringing academics interested in the study of western esotericism, witchcraft, and other allied areas together in constructive dialogue. Arguably, no other scholar has done so much in recent years to bring together this disparate academic community. I ask him what life is like as both an academic historian and an "insider" to the world of esotericism, and talk Ronald Hutton, Kenneth Grant, and the future of academic research.

EDW: In your academic publications, you are very open about being a practitioner of ceremonial magic; when did you first become involved in the world of western esotericism and what would you describe as your own particular approach to the occult ?

Hell, that's a huge opening question. I had some weird experiences as a child, something I later found was a pretty common motif in various cultures. From the age of seven through to nine I was ill with about eight different consecutive diseases, and I spent some of that period pretty much "out of the game". I don't recall much of that time (I have no recollection of my seventh birthday for instance), but in retrospect I think the larger part of me was 'outside', looking in, consorting with spirits or however you want to define/describe it. I was attracted to all things Ancient Egyptian from an early age, and being taken to see the touring Tutankhamun exhibition in London in the early 1970s made a great impression on me, as did seeing the first TV pictures of man landing on the moon.

In my teens I started to explore practical magical things, and spent possibly too many years practicing 'traditional' ceremonial magic, the kind of things you find in Solomonic grimoires and suchlike. Fascinating stuff, which led me into [Aleister] Crowley, and then into what is loosely called chaos magic, which is a terrible name for something that is huge, often very elegant and so diverse as to defy simple definition (which is one of the attractions). Now (and for quite a few years) my approach is 'anything goes' and 'see what works', be that a formal invocation with all the robes and swords, or spraying an impromptu sigil on the pavement with mayonnaise. Some of that approach is described in the various Francis Breakspear books of practical magic.

EDW: At some point you decided to move into the realm of academia, undertaking a bachelors degree, a masters degree and then a PhD at the University of Bristol in 2006. What made you decide to explore the history of Western esotericism in an academic capacity, and what was your experience in doing so ? I can bet that there were some naysayers in both the esoteric and academic communities who weren't that receptive to what you were trying to do ?

Another super question. I did the fairly conventional life-path in some respects, left school, worked, partnered up with someone, split up with someone, and in the early 90s I was unemployed and single.... I was already writing stuff (which was published much later) and I rediscovered a thirst for finding academic stuff out. I took a couple of short college courses, and in those days it was a lot cheaper to go to University than it is now, so at 34 years old I started a BSc degree in psychology (a rational science subject being perhaps a weird choice for a magicko, but my early career was in Medical Sciences, so it was slightly comfortable from that angle). That opened some doors, I did a Masters in History (with a funding award), and while doing that I was introduced to Ronald Hutton at a conference, and eventually was interviewed for a PhD place under him, some scholarship money was secured (to my immense gratitude) and I started work on that in late 2001.

If there were only mere naysayers that would have been fine, but there was some active and pretty vile abuse and dissent from both camps. At that time Ronald was already a hugely influential historian, but he wasn't as big (and contested) a name as he is now. Being his student opened some doors for me, but as his Triumph of the Moon had not long been published (a couple of years) it also ensured some doors were firmly slammed in my face. Triumph, and some of the work of other academics, got a rough reception from the more fragile end of esotericism, from the kind of people who believe something historical is true just because their magical group leader tells them it is, and they tend to have loud voices when this flimsy view is threatened. Some academics didn't like it either; one noted Prof told me that they did not consider the subject (the history of esotericism) to be worthy of any academic time or effort, as they turned their back on me and walked away. My reply to that was not phrased academically, it was a lot more brief; I will never win any medals for tact... I had better not name names, those debates are old hat now, and it is less interesting than your other questions, so I will move on : ) Also, I should say that a lot of people were wonderfully kind, which I discuss below, it wasn’t all doom and gloom by any means, for every asshole there was at least one angel…

EDW: What was it like to undertake your doctoral research under Ronald Hutton, one of Britain's foremost living historians ? I've always found him to be very friendly and approachable, but at the same time it must have been daunting to work with one of “the Greats” ? Clearly, he inspired you enough to produce Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon (2009), a festchrift of sorts in honour of his historical study of Wicca, The Triumph of the Moon (1999).

*laughs* A quite astonishing experience, and one that I will treasure forever. One of Britain’s foremost historians ever, living or dead I would say. Someone would have to do a heck of a lot to top Ronald’s achievements. Having a conversation with Ronald is a delight, and I had him to myself every 3 weeks or so, for a precious half an hour, for almost 3 years. I am a very lucky person. He is indeed a very friendly man, but no pushover when you work for him- he is a superb adviser on academic work; firm but fair, and he will not allow crap work to get through the filters- he steered, cajoled, encouraged and generally supported some very difficult stuff I was doing, at the same time as managing his perpetually massive workload in other areas. It was daunting as hell, too- having read his stuff I was continually wondering how I was ever going to do anything to impress him. I think I managed that once or twice. I finished the PhD in late 2004, and with a bit of rewrite after it was assessed by the external examiners I got the actual certificate on Valentine's Day in 2006, which was cute timing, and I got to wear graduation robes of scarlet and imperial purple, which made me feel like the Pope for a day. I remain in touch with Ronald, and am one of the growing band of people whom he has officially or unofficially mentored in academic things, and I am friends with many of his past and current students- we are in some ways a loosely affiliated tribe, and there is a lot of mutual support between us all, maybe a bit like the Masons, but far less secretive!

Ten Years of Triumph, a book I conceived and edited a few years back, was my 'love letter to the universe', to steal a phrase from somewhere; it was my way of getting some great people (like Sabina Magliocco, Amy Hale, Geoff Samuels etc) together from all parts of the world to metaphorically wave a lot of coloured flags that semaphored a very big message of how much appreciation, admiration, awe, respect and, yes, how much real love there is for Ronald from many quarters of the academic and pagan world. A lot of these bookish tribute things about various people are produced in academia when someone retires, or when someone dies, but I felt it important that we said our piece then, and the tenth birthday of Triumph of the Moon was a great milestone. Ronald was, of course, generous and charming about our little project, giving it some of his valuable time when he was extra busy, and he kindly made an evening to come along to the very low key book launch in a Bristol pub, which was a memorable night for all who attended.

EDW: Your research brought you into contact with some of the seminal figures of late twentieth-century British occultism, including several individuals who are sadly no longer with us, like Kenneth Grant of the Typhonian Order and Andrew Chumbley of the Cultus Sabbati. How did you feel about interacting with these “big names” of the occult community, with the accompanying - and sometimes intimidating - mythologies and folklore that had been built up around them ?

Yup, it is an inbuilt benefit of doing modern history rather than delving into the 17th century etc, that many key witnesses are still alive, and I had contact with a lot of the names, who, for the most part were supremely generous with their time and very kind of spirit (for example Ramsey Dukes, without whom I don’t think I could have done anything like the research I did) and in some cases when it was in-person meetings their generosity extended to letting me have time with their private book collections. Some of them became, and remain, dear friends, for which I consider myself hugely privileged. Andrew was very helpful indeed, in ways that I was not able to discuss in a purely academic way in the thesis, and it was gutting when he suddenly died. If he had lived and completed his PhD, hell, he would have been something else…. And dear Mr Grant..... wow. I had been a fan for years, and getting a letter back from him at all was breathtaking.... and the content was even better than that. He lived to a ripe old age, and I am told he read parts of my book and quite enjoyed it. Yes, there is a hugely intimidating mythos around many of those people, and I tried NOT to be 'swooning fanboy' in these kind of circumstances, but it didn't always happen like that!

It is also very difficult when historical research starts to unpick and in some cases undermine a lore that surrounds a big name, and I got some pretty hateful stuff by email from a few Grant fans who didn't like me pointing out some historical problems with his tales, even though I made it abundantly clear that while pure academic work on him showed some logic problems, as a magician I had the ultimate respect for him. Unlike Amado Crowley, who I pretty much dismantled in every way possible, his claims were a dreadful case of fairytales (in a bad way) - which was a shame, I really *wanted* Aleister to have left a living vessel behind, with some massive magickal power. Maybe he did, but it was not Amado, and all the email abuse and threats from his students doesn't change that... As I said, for every asshole there were angels, and now that the fictional character known as Amado has “died” the abusive emails have stopped.

EDW: Both during and following the completion of your doctorate, you brought out published versions of your masters and doctoral dissertations in the form of Aleister Crowley and the 20th Century Synthesis of Magick (2001) and The History of British Magick After Crowley (2007). The latter received at least two reviews in peer-reviewed academic journals and many more on Pagan and esoteric blogs and websites, which were overwhelmingly positive, but at least one academic voice still seemed a little uneasy regarding your emic status as an “insider” to the very movement you were studying. How did you feel about those reviews and the reception to your books more generally ?

The publication was entirely due to the effort and vision of Katherine, my stalwart publisher [at Hidden Publishing], otherwise we would not be having this conversation now. To be honest I was glad of any review, as I had no idea what kind of, or level of audience I would ever get. The printed academic reviews took *years* to come out in some cases, which is the way the industry works, sadly. The insider-outsider status is a debate I myself still have problems with, so it should not be surprising that others do too! On the one hand people may think that you cannot understand a phenomenon completely unless you have been inside it, and on the other... well there is a problem of academic detachment and suchlike, potentially. I do not consider myself to be an apologist for, or a puppet of anyone (which as been suggested in some quarters). And even if I was a puppet, what purpose would it serve? it certainly wasn't for money; book sales in esoteric areas do not make people rich, I knew that right at the start...

The inside-outside argument can maybe be summed up in a metaphor: some writers think that to be a good clinical psychologist you need to have suffered from a mental illness, to give you more insight to the conditions you will treat. Maybe. But I do not know of any veterinarians who insist that you have to have been a dog in order to be a better vet. A simplistic answer, but right now I don't have a better one, because I don't think there is an answer, once you have been an insider (in anything) you cannot then be an outsider, so it is impossible to compare like-for-like, and both perspectives have relevance.

I am glad that anyone reads the stuff and then has anything intelligent to say about it. Those "reviewers" who have personal axes to grind are pretty transparent in any case, so I hope that readers of the duff reviews (for example on Amazon) can spot the difference, and there is a quite hysterically deranged and venomous “review” of Ten Years of Triumph online that came out within an hour or two of the book being published, and was obviously agenda-based, rather than about our content…. Ah well.

Two of the early reviews of the book-cum-PhD [The History of British Magick After Crowley] pleased me hugely as they showed the reviewer had really READ the book (whereas some of the more flagrant, but content-lite carping reviewers even got my name wrong, and that's on the front cover, doh) - one said it was a sensible book about a freaky subject (a paraphrase); which is a succinct and quite perfect comment. The other one was from chaos magic founder Peter Carroll, who said he hoped it would be a reference work for years to come, which was, I’m not ashamed to admit, another fanboy swoon moment. I've subsequently met and had lunch with Peter and thanked him for that. Andy Roberts gave it a stunning review in Fortean Times, and he also changed the unwieldy title into a great acronym, which we had not spotted during production: THOBMAC, for which I was grateful : )

EDW: You were also the mastermind behind the Journal for the Academic Study of Magic (JSM), a peer-reviewed academic journal which ran for five volumes from 2002 to 2010 before it came to an end, and is now much-missed. Could you tell us a little more about how that came about, and the scenario that led to its ultimate conclusion ?

No! I was CO-mastermind, my fellow PhD student (now Dr) Alison Butler was also hugely involved in that (check out her great book on the Golden Dawn by the way) and I remind people of that at every opportunity; if there is any glory to be had, she gets half. It was our joint idea and we both did a lot of work on it. It all came about one sunny June day in Bristol, in a cafe that is now long closed. Too much coffee prompted a lot of hapless moaning that getting academic journal articles on magic published was very hard (the fabulous journal The Pomegranate was at that stage in a long hiatus) and so after several more large coffees it became obvious that we could moan about it for years more, or we could do something about it. I mean, how hard could it be to set up a new journal? Hah.

If we had known... I think we might still have done it.... A long story, but in brief, we found a couple of willing and relevant Doctors (a journal needs a qualified review board) and we sent out an online invitation to send in articles. A flood of pieces arrived, some amazing, some amazingly mad. During this process, Mogg Morgan [proprietor of Mandrake of Oxford publishing], who I had email contact with about magical research, but had never met, offered to publish the journal. Bingo. From caffeine injected idea to finished printed product on shop shelves was just over nine months, which was actually impossible according to anyone in the industry, but we didn't know that at the time. We were very lucky to have Mogg's skill and reputation behind us, and his customer base... without that I think we would have launched independently and maybe sold five copies. Ever. These were heady days, we had a lot of support from Ronald, and we were able to run a launch conference at Bristol Uni, with subsidies from the Institute of Historical Research, and people still talk about that event, it was fabulous, we had academics and magicians on the same stage, talking to each other about common ground. Wow. apparently it was not a regular thing then. The journal grew and gathered both strength and additional editorial board members, including some Professors, but without an academic home it was costly to run, I put a lot of my own money into the admin and website, and a LOT of my time.

When my PhD was finished I had to find work to eat, and so I slowly started to devolve the JSM work to other academics, all of whom were very busy, and over a couple of years and a couple of issues the head of steam went down, and the gaps between editions became longer. While the JSM was very important to all of us, to wider academia it was not, it was a zero-scoring journal in terms of university reputation; it was not a headline-grabber, or anywhere that would generate funding for a research project (which is how universities run nowadays) and other work priorities beset the main editorial board. It all went quiet for about two years, and after a lot of prompting from me, I finally forced the editors to make a decision on the future. It was re-start or kill the title, as far as I was concerned. What actually happened, after much debate, was that the journal was taken over by some American postgraduates, but they took a long time deciding to rebrand and refocus it. Their journal is called Preternature, and I hear good things about it. The JSM is now like a fly embedded in amber, preserved and intact, and I am still very proud of all that I and the other hard-working members achieved with it, and in some ways it is satisfying that none of us made a penny out of it, it was done purely for love of the subject.

EDW: Another of your creations was the Academic Study of Magic list-serve that operates online, filling a much-needed niche among scholars operating in this field. You no longer act as moderator, but I think many would be interested in your perspective on how it all came about, and the direction that it has taken.

That was a natural progression and a sensible step. As papers for submissions to the JSM came in, there was a dialogue with the editors and the writers, and it became obvious that there was a vacuum; nowhere for like-minded folk to talk about this stuff. many academics who write about magical things are working in 'normal' fields, for example in one of the JSMs we had a great piece on Lovecraftian themes, written by a Doctor of Marine Biology. Nothing to do with his day job, but a super piece nonetheless. We set up the e-list, and apart from a (very few) flame wars it has been around for a decade now, and when I last looked had over 400 members, from (I think) 17 academic disciplines, and a lot of magical practitioners. I haven't been a moderator there for years, for the same reason as the JSM editorship, it is time-consuming, and I have enough trouble earning a living in a full week, I have huge respect for the people who do moderate the list, such as Dr Dave Green, as it is done with a very light but careful touch and allows for spirited debate, which is healthy. A very few times it got unhealthy, and that happened a while back, with a lot of offline abuse directed at me from a few correspondents, so I have been out of the list for most of 2012, as starving those correspondents of oxygen seemed to be the best way to shut them up.

EDW: You have a couple of new publications coming out very soon; would you care to elaborate a little more about your involvement with them ? Are there any other projects on the horizon ?

Out already! Earlier this year I had an edited book out, The Enduring Problems with Prophecy: From Early-Modern Times to 2012 and Beyond, which you can buy at any time, it will remain completely relevant after the world fails to end in a week or two! And it has some great pieces, from established stars like Julian Vayne and Ramsey Dukes, and some new writers who are going to be massive, like Al Cummins. I have a chapter in the just-published volume edited by [Dr.] Nevill Drury on Concrescent, Pathways in Modern Western Magic, which is a HUGE book, but filled with fabulous writers, both academic and magical (so, a tad like the JSM in style). The publisher, Sam Webster, is a current student with Ronald Hutton, so it is a nice closing of a circle there.

Future projects depend on both of (a) the western world economic slump eventually leveling out so that someone actually both wants to and has the spare money to buy a book again, and (b) my having the time inbetween earning a crust. For the last 12 months I have been chancing my arm overseas teaching English, often for tiny sums of money in far-flung countries, as I could find no work at all in the UK, and so after a period of being a “doctor on the dole” I sold everything that I owned and left the country. This was based on a terrifying statistic that if you are in the UK, aged 50 and unemployed, there is presently a 50% chance that you will not work again. Not for me, so I got out while unemployed at 49 ½ and took the risk, working in places with no welfare safety net etc.

Having the leisure time to write books in those circumstances is tricky, but there is a part-finished magical practice book that *could* be completed in 2013 sometime…. I was hoping it would be by the end of 2012 but this last job I’ve been in has been very demanding of extra working hours, so it’s a common theme, delays and day job taking precedence. A practical magic book that takes X hours to write makes a little money, an academic book that takes 4X hours to write will make about the same sum of money, so I have to look at the efficiencies of time. A lot of my scholarly projects have been put on permanent hold for the last 2-3 years due to all of this, including a book on the History and Social Function of Fraud, which I would love to finish researching and writing, but not as an unsupported researcher, it needs a university base.

EDW: And, on a final note, as someone who has been a practitioner-scholar of the subject for many years, where do you see the future of academic research into western esotericism in ten years time, or even fifty ?

Magical experimentation and research is very healthy, there are some great, diverse, imaginative things being done out in the field. It is difficult not to be enormously cynical about academic research however. That answer is linked to the economic slump. British university study in Humanities (history etc) has been mashed by this apology for a government that we have now, and the damage they have wrought will take a decade or more to fix WHEN they are voted out. If indeed it can be fixed. I am only one of hundreds of researchers who have been trained by the uni system and then simply let go when some out of touch millionaire minister didn't like a few sums and laid waste to a massively important system of education in the UK. That timescale (election date plus a decade [EDW: which will be 2025]) – which is an optimistic estimate by the way, precludes me from further involvement in a work role (if I ever get a job back in Britain, which is doubtful) as I will be retired or dead by then!

If it is fixed well enough and in time, then some amazing things can happen, but it depends on a new and fresh young crop of trained researchers, and if the lights go out completely in history departments due to funding issues, then it may not be possible to ever start from a stationary point and bring that skill base back up to speed, with a new cohort of minds to do the research work. That is the very depressing view. On the lighter side, freelance researchers abound (I would never call them amateur, as that has a connotation of not good enough, which is untrue), and with stringent academic techniques (which you can learn outside of a university, for sure) it may stay alive, and possibly thrive, but if it stays outside of academia we go backwards in time, in terms of academic respect for the subject.

In fifty? I will be long dead for sure by then, and I hope the slump is over by then, that we are teaching history again and that some keen young things are using Ronald's books, my books and those of many others as a springboard to piece together what the magickos of a hundred years before were doing, and what they were thinking... Whatever the Internet is in 50 years' time, I am sure they will be using it extensively, and that they will find this page on some archive site, so I will close here by blowing them a kiss for their efforts, and wishing them the happy discovery of amazing things :). Thank you Ethan, this was a lot of fun.