Thursday, 26 September 2013

An Interview with Dr. Robert Mathiesen

Today here at Albion Calling, I am interviewing Dr. Robert Mathiesen, an American Medievalist, Slavist, and renowned historian of Western esotericism. Now Professor Emeritus at Brown University, Rhode Island, where he has worked since 1967, in recent years Dr. Mathiesen has turned his attention to both the textual evidence for witchcrafts in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States, as well as the work of folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland, who himself played a significant role in the development of contemporary Pagan Witchcraft. We talk about Mathiesen's life, research, and thoughts about the future of the field.

EDW: You obtained your bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964, and then your PhD from Columbia University, New York for a dissertation titled “The Inflectional Morphology of the Synodal Church Slavonic Verb,” in 1974. Your interest at the time was in Slavic linguistics and philology, and it would be interesting to learn how you first became involved in such a subject, which I'd imagine was complicated by the fact that Eastern Europe itself was then on the other side of the Iron Curtain ?

That's a long, strange story. I was always greatly interested in dead languages and old writing systems, and also I had a talent for mathematics and the hard sciences. This led me to my first esoteric teacher outside of my own family, Clesson Hopkins Harvey (1925-2012), who was teaching physics at Berkeley High School. He had a degree in physical chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, but his parents had been members of Katherine Tingley’s branch of the Theosophical Society at Point Loma, in San Diego, California, and he had passed through the excellent school system that the Society operated at Point Loma, rather than through the California public school system. He knew how to read Old-Kingdom Egyptian hieroglyphics as well as Classical Tibetan, and he ran an after-school club for students at that school who wanted to learn how to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. He and I became quite friendly, and eventually I spent many happy hours in his apartment translating some of the Pyramid Texts under his direction and hearing his esoteric commentary on them. He also had many fascinating stories to tell about his own occult adventures. I had already studied Latin and German in high school, but Old Egyptian was my first language that did not use the Latin alphabet.
Robert Mathiesen with his wife.
I also had good friends at Berkeley High School whose families had fled Russia after the Bolsheviks seized power. Because of them I wanted to learn Russian also, and I began to study that language at the University, as well as several other languages. I soon learned that my friends’ church, the Russian Orthodox Church, used as its liturgical language a much older form of Slavic, written in a beautiful and complicated black-letter alphabet. This liturgical language was called Church Slavonic. As it happened, the University also had a course on its oldest variety, Old Church Slavonic, which was offered by a brilliant linguist and superb teacher, Francis J. Whitfield (1916-1996). I took that course, and I became fascinated with Slavic historical linguistics and philology. And so off I went to graduate school, almost on a whim, to pursue that interest. Columbia University seemed the best place to do so (and they offered me financial aid), although it had the serious drawback of being in New York City, which was far too noisy and intense a place for an introvert like myself.

More generally, the whole question of ritual or sacral languages also seemed to me worth pursuing academically. Why is there a tendency, even in non-literate cultures, to use a special, archaic form of language in religious and magical ritual? What effect does the use of such a language naturally have on the consciousness of the participants in that ritual? (And can we tease out the psychological or neurological bases of these effects?)

As for the Iron Curtain, it wasn’t too much of a problem for me, really. The Soviet regime had largely suppressed scholarship in all the fields that most interested me, and it limited access to the primary sources on which such scholarship is based, so I had little reason to travel there. Also, like many an introvert, I have never really enjoyed traveling. If, however, there had been such a thing as a time machine, I might have wanted to visit with several scholars from bygone centuries.

EDW: Although not directly related to your scholarship, it is noteworthy that you were enrolled in the American university system during the era of the growing counterculture, civil rights, and anti-war protests, which attracted international attention. Their legacy lives on today, and I personally studied them as part of my secondary education syllabus here in Britain; were you involved in these movements in any way, and did they affect you during your studies ?

I was born nine months after the United States entered World War II, and so I was just a year too old to have encountered these events while I was a student, either at Berkeley or at Columbia. However, I had friends who played a role behind the scenes in exporting the student revolution from Berkeley throughout the United States, and I heard their stories. (The student revolution was not simply a spontaneous nation-wide movement; its spread from Berkeley to other universities was funded and otherwise facilitated by a small group of activists, among whom were one or two of my friends.)
The Annmary Brown Memorial at Brown University,
which housed many of the library's special-collections
which Dr. Mathiesen worked with.
In 1967 I moved to New England and joined the faculty of Brown University (in the state of Rhode Island). Brown was a small and very good college in those days, and its internal governance and administration happened to be very weak and ineffectual during most of the first decade I was there. So the student revolution encountered almost no resistance from on high at Brown. In the absence of any confrontation, cooperation developed easily between students and most of the younger faculty. Thus all that revolutionary energy was channeled into academic reform, resulting in the University’s quite free-wheeling and open “new curriculum” in 1969. It was the perfect permissive environment for an eccentric like me to start his academic career.

Now Brown University has changed almost out of all recognition from those long-ago permissive days.  It has transformed itself from an excellent college for undergraduate students into a middle-ranked research university with strong graduate and professional schools. It is now rather tightly governed and administered so as to maximize its own institutional wealth and power and minimize all risk, rather than to advance knowledge for knowledge’s own sake. The old university ideals of Lernfreiheit and Lehrfreiheit (the freedom to learn and the freedom to teach whatever one likes) are very much attenuated at Brown now, at least in comparison to the 1970s. However, as Heraclitus said so long ago, “all things flow.” The current restrictive era, too, may pass.

EDW: In 1967, Brown University employed you as an instructor in Slavic languages, before raising you to the position of Assistant Professor in 1972 and then Professor in 1986. Over that period, you produced a variety of booklets to accompany exhibitions, such as The Ostrih Bible 1580/1–1980/1: A Quadricentennial Exhibition (Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, 1980), Late Medieval Herbals: An Exhibit at the John Hay Library (Committee on Medieval Studies, 1983–84), and The Great Polyglot Bibles: The Impact of Printing on Religion in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (John Carter Brown Library, 1985), alongside numerous journal articles, book chapters and reviews. Your interests moved from Slavic languages to the Middle Ages of Western Europe; what was it that led you to do so, and were Brown happy for you to move into a different field ?

The causes were economic. For all its permissiveness, Brown rightly expected its faculty to teach classes that actually would have students enrolled in them. As the Cold War wound down and government funds for the advanced study of Slavic languages dried up, there was no longer any sustained student demand for courses in Slavic historical linguistics. If I had been an all-around Slavist, I might have started to offer courses in modern Slavic languages and literatures, as my colleagues at other universities found it easy to do. However, despite my advanced degree, I had not prepared myself to be an all-around Slavist, but rather an all-around Medieval philologist and historical linguist with a primary specialization in Eastern Orthodox Slavic lands. And I did have a fair number of Medieval languages, Western as well as Eastern. So I began to offer courses in Medieval Studies, although Brown had no formal department for that field, only a loose network of interested faculty who were housed in a wide variety of departments. In the early 1980s a professor could still shift fields in this way at Brown. It became much more difficult to do that in the 1990s, as formal credentials began to count for much more at Brown than proven competence or expertise.
The John Hay Library at Brown, which housed
much of the Special-Collections.
The methods of historical linguistics, philology, textual criticism, palaeography and codicology are generally the same, no matter what the Medieval languages and texts to which they are applied. So I started offering undergraduate courses on those methods. They proved quite effective at Brown because the University’s libraries had (and have) a variegated collection of Medieval manuscripts, as well as major holdings of incunabula (books printed in the 15th century) and other early-printed books. Also, library policy allowed undergraduate students unrestricted access to all these rare materials, so my courses included a lot of hands-on work with manuscripts and early-printed books. Through these courses, I developed excellent relations with the Special-Collections librarians at Brown and elsewhere, which led to the exhibit catalogues you mentioned.

As a Medievalist, of course, I needed not just a passing familiarity with Christianity, but real expertise in the history and practice of that religion, and particularly in such subjects as Medieval Christian theology, Biblical and patristic studies, liturgics and the computus (that is, liturgical calendar calculations), etc. An uncommon sort of expertise, indeed, for a non-Abrahamic scholar such as myself to have developed!

EDW: Esotericism and magic appear to have been your primary research interest for several decades now, but I'm sure that many of my readers would be interested in learning where this fascination first stemmed from. Did you personally come from what you have referred to as an “esoteric family” or is it something that you were first exposed to in later life ?

Yes, my mother’s family has had esoteric interests from the 1870s or 1880s onward, which came down to me. It was a very narrow line of transmission. My great-great-grandmother was the first ancestor whose esoteric interests I can document (from her scrapbooks and from contemporary publications that mention her). Her only child, my great-grandmother, lived until I was about ten years old, and I knew her house and its contents well. She owned a genuine human skull (an anatomical preparation from the late 1800s), which lived—that was the word we used—in the same box with the old photographs of her own ancestors. (Now I have that skull.) Her curio cabinet held a couple of gazing crystals, an opium pipe and a dried opium poppy seed head, as well as other ancient family relics. Great-grandmother, in turn, also had only one child, my grandmother Zena, who had died before I was born. Grandmother had two children, my mother Edris and my aunt Muriel.

All these five women had esoteric interests, which they pursued in a desultory and somewhat frivolous manner. Their interests appear to have derived from the magical wing of Spiritualism (as exemplified by such figures as Emma Hardinge Britten and possibly Paschal Beverly Randolph) and from the mind-over-matter magic of New Thought and Christian Science (“magic with the serial numbers filed off,” as John Michael Greer and others have called it). Also, they were greatly inspired by the esoteric and occult themes woven into the novels of Marie CorelliH. Rider Haggard and Sax Rohmer. In addition, great-grandmother’s husband practiced the Delsarte System of gymnastics and physical culture. This had been brought to California by Genevieve Stebbins, who was also involved with the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and the Church of Light; in her hands the Delsarte System could be applied for esoteric ends. These ancestors of mine took those esoteric ingredients and blended them with California-style Nature Religion, or Pantheism, as popularized by luminaries like Joaquin Miller and John Muir, thus creating their own personal kind of magic and religion. “Magical Pantheism” seems to me to be the best description of the beliefs in which I was raised by my mother.

Some decades ago I passed on a copy of Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon to my mother, who read it with considerable interest, and remarked, “That’s almost exactly what I believe.” (Despite her response, it is important to note that neither she nor any of her ancestors thought of themselves as Witches. Witches, for them, simply did not exist, except as a role one might play at a Hallowe’en party.)
Dr. Mathiesen with his wife and granddaughter.
My father’s family, in contrast, had no religious or spiritual interests whatever. My father was a mechanical engineer working in the defense and aerospace industries, and he was an agnostic. His step-father, however, had traveled for some years in his youth with a carnival, where he learned the ways of sharpers and con-artists. Grandfather knew how to judge the fineness of a piece of gold simply by biting it. He could open a safe without knowing its combination, or deal you any hand of cards you cared to name from a new deck that he had never handled. He had met and married my grandmother while they were both working for a local auction-house in Oakland, California, that, along with its legitimate activities, also quietly fenced stolen goods and peddled political influence. She kept the accounts for the whole business (the false books that auditors could inspect anytime, but also the true books that nobody else ever got to see). When I got to know my grandparents, decades later, their former employer had long been dead, and they ran a small auction-house of their own that specialized in intestate estates. Grandmother had had quite enough of shady dealings by that time, so she insisted that their own business was run entirely above-board, without even routine kick-backs and bribes to the Public Administrator (who assigned intestate estates to various auction-houses for conversion into ready money). Consequently, they never prospered, though they no longer had to worry about getting caught out and being sent to prison. That seemed a fair trade-off to my grandmother.

While I was growing up, dinner-table conversations could be uncommonly instructive. My mother might talk aboute some esoteric phenomenon, my father would come up with an engineer’s explanation for it on scientific principles, and rarely his stepfather might be persuaded to say a little about how the same apparent result could be accomplished by fraud and deception. I could not have asked for a better upbringing!

EDW: In the 1990s, you began teaching courses titled “Magic in the Middle Ages,” “Women, Magic, and Power 1800–1960,” and “Esoteric Russia” at Brown. What inspired your decision to initiate these courses, and did you face much opposition for teaching such unconventional topics ?

I was one of five faculty who team-taught the course “Introduction to Medieval Studies” here at Brown. I had been doing the first unit, on the chronological and geographical boundaries of the Medieval World, its distinct periods and regions. The other four units were on whatever topics the other four faculty wanted to present that year, with the only proviso that the topics might intrigue students who were taking the course. Eventually I tired of teaching the first unit and traded with a colleague for one of the four free-topic units. That was the first academic year after Richard Kieckhefer’s Magic in the Middle Ages had just been published, and I had just been reading it. So I decided to offer my unit on that topic. Student response to the topic was so strong and so gratifying that I decided to offer a full course under the same title the following academic year (1991/2). I had thought I might draw twenty students at the most. Instead, about 500 appeared in the clasroom on the first day, though their number eventually settled down to about 300. I had never taught a class larger than about 20 before, so I had to learn on the fly how to run a very large course. It was not my finest hour! But with practice I got better at teaching large classes.

In the early 1990s about one-fifth of the students in the course self-identified to me as Pagan (or Wiccan or Asatru) or as magic-users of some variety. Brown was still pretty free-wheeling in the early 1990s. Around 1995 our admissions office began to seek out another, more entrepreneurial sort of applicant for admission; after that date many fewer students in my courses self-identified as Pagan or as magical folk.

My other course, “Women, Magic and Power, 1800-1960,” came about almost by accident. I was sitting in my office talking somewhat at random with my UTRA [my undergraduate teaching and research assistant] about the history of alternative magical religions in the USA, and how most of them had been founded and led by women, when my UTRA from the previous year happened to stop by and join the conversation. She was very enthusiastic for Women’s Studies, and her response to the conversation was, “Why haven’t we ever been told about these women in any of our courses on Religious Studies or Women’s Studies at Brown? Are courses taught on them anywhere else?” I said that there weren’t, so far as I knew, probably because faculty in Religious Studies were mostly uncomfortable with taking magic seriously, and faculty in Women’s Studies were, by and large, equally uncomfortable with taking religion seriously, since it played so great a role in upholding patriarchal forms of society.

With that we were off and running . . . The two of them helped me work out a syllabus for the new course, and I was able to offer it for the first time in the academic year 1998/9. (I owe them both a great deal. A huge public thank-you, Kate and Rebecca; you know who you are!)

Before that conversation, my research on women-led magical alternative religions had been nothing more than a personal voyage of discovery. I had been trying to figure out how my mother’s family came to be so very different from other families, so weird and odd even for California and the San Francisco Bay area. My mother’s favorite saying was, “Mathiesens are different!” (No doubt her own mother had told her, “Leathermans are different,” and so on back through the generations of women before her, with a different surname each time.) By that saying she meant that her whole family, past and present, had made a point of being different. The gloss on that old family saying was not only that we were obligated by birth and upbringing to cultivate ways to be different from everyone else in our society, but even ways to be different from one another within our family. Each of us had a duty to find our own way to be different. Also, we weren’t ever to be part of any community, or to give any community our loyalty, or to conform to its norms, or respect it and its laws as anything more than a necessary evil.

There wasn’t any opposition at first to my courses at Brown. I had a reputation as a first-rate scholar. Also, everyone simply took it for granted that I, like any other academic in a major university, could not possibly take either magic or alternative religion seriously. Brown, like all other major universities, was far too respectable! But I never cared about appearances or social conventions, beyond the bare minimum needed not to run afoul of the law, and I never tried to hide my own strong interest in how magic can actually be made to work in the hands of a skilled and knowledgeable magician (or, sometimes, can be made to seem to work). And I talked about these things, outside of class, with any and all interested students.

So there was trouble, eventually. But I had developed my own academic power bases, and I quietly let it be known that, although I didn’t like to fight and didn’t ever want to fight, whenever I had been forced to fight in the past, I had never fought fair, but had always gone for the jugular or hit below the belt with my very first blow. And after thirty years at Brown, I had come to know which other closets had skeletons in them, too. So I was able to keep trouble more or less at bay for a few years, until I was ready to retire on my own terms. I think there might have been a feeling of relief among the administrators when I did retire. If there was, I take it as a high compliment. I was certainly glad to be done with university life forever. At least in my corner of Brown, academic politics since the early 1970s reminded me (as it did many of my colleagues) of Gunther in the snake pit: being able to play one’s harp only slightly mitigated the effects of the venom.

EDW: Alongside Richard Kieckhefer and Claire Fanger, you were one of the three founders of the Societas Magica, an academic fellowship devoted to the scholarly study of magical beliefs and praxes. Can you tell us a little about how this organisation came about, and the reasons that you had for initiating such a pioneering group ? Furthermore, now that the society has been around for almost twenty years, what do you see as its strengths and achievements, and do you have any particular hopes for its future?

The Societas Magica was conceived within the matrix of the International Congress on Medieval Studies, which meets every year in May at Western Michigan University (in Kalamazoo, Michigan). Its initial purpose was the very modest one of arranging annual sessions devoted to the history of magic, especially Medieval magic, as a part of that Congress.

If memory serves me rightly, the idea of such a society was floated in the course of a casual conversation between the three of us as our paths happened to cross between scheduled sessions. For the most part, it was Claire Fanger who actually carried the ball and ran with it during the early years, together with her friend and colleague Frank F. Klaassen. The two of them dealt with the administration of the Congress every year, launched a newsletter, arranged for the scheduled sessions of papers, and prepared the ground for the Society’s annual meeting (also held at the Congress).

Now, of course, the Societas Magica has become an established institution. I consider myself fortunate to have been present at its birth. But, for reasons of health, I have found it nearly impossible to travel now, so I have not been able to attend any meetings of the society since the early 2000s. Thus I am not very up-to-date on its current activities.

EDW: In the summer of 2005, you retired to become Professor Emeritus, although have remained actively involved in the academic study of magic. With Andrew Theitic, you have been involved in investigating the texts that lie at the heart of the New England Covens of Traditionalist Witches (NECTW), a tradition of Wicca founded by Gwen Thompson in 1970. Published as The Rede of the Wiccae: Adriana Porter, Gwen Thompson and the Birth of a Tradition of Witchcraft (Olympian Press, 2005), this work has been of real importance in unearthing more about the development of Pagan Witchcraft in the United States. How did this situation come about, and do you have any intention of continuing with any similar research in future ?
Mathiesen and Theitic's The Rede of
the Wiccae
Theitic has been my good friend for decades. I first met him through his partner (now deceased), who worked at Brown and audited my course on Magic in the Middle Ages.  Theitic is a natural scholar, and he is also the archivist and historian for the NECTW. He is also Elizabeth Pepper’s literary heir, and he continues to publish The Witches’ Almanacwhich Pepper founded with John Wilcock in 1971.

While I was an active professor at a research university, I felt myself constrained not to take any oath of secrecy or confidentiality that would keep me from shedding light on the sources for my research, so I worked with the history of this Tradition exclusively from material that Gwen Thompson herself had published, or that was otherwise not oath-bound. As for future work on Thompson's family and their esoteric interests, we shall see. Theitic has recently published an article about our collaboration in the latest issue of Michael Howard’s The Cauldron (no. 148), which might be of interest to your readers.

I certainly plan to continue my research on the various kinds of pre-Gardnerian (or non-Gardnerian) Witchcraft in the United States. I am particularly interested in how women devised or invented Witchcrafts of their own, usually as a way to empower themselves, between the years 1860 and 1960. This happened more commonly than one might think. (Something similar was probably happening in the United Kingdom during the same decades.) In general, these women relied on popular books on the history of magic and witchcraft, on fiction about Witches and magicians, and on folklore (both in published form and in living oral tradition), as they invented Witchcrafts for themselves.
Emma Hardinge Britten
The earliest such woman of whom I am aware was the redoubtable Emma Hardinge Britten (1823-1899), one of the founding members of the Theosophical Society, but also a well-known, influential Spiritualist medium and lecturer with a large following on both sides of the Atlantic. Hardinge Britten repeatedly asserted that there was no difference at all between a medium, a magician or practical occultist, and a Witch: all of them had the same rare (usually inborn) special abilities, and all of them drew their power from the same sources. She was also the editor and partial author of two famous (and quite controversial) books published in 1876: Art Magic; or, Mundane, Sub-Mundane and Super-Mundane Spiritism, and Ghost Land; or, Researches into the Mysteries of Occultism. (It is worth noting that Doreen Valiente cites Art Magic in one of her early works, and she clearly learned from it.) In 2001 I published a monograph on Hardinge Britten as a representative of the “magical wing” of Spiritualism, in which this question is explored more fully: The Unseen Worlds of Emma Hardinge Britten: Some Chapters in the History of Western Occultism (Theosophical History, Occasional Papers, volume IX).

Other such women in the United States are, on the whole, less well documented than Hardinge Britten. Many of them worked as solitaries, practicing Witchcrafts of their own invention for their own empowerment, without any thought of handing their Craft down to the next generation. Documented cases include Leslyn Macdonald (1904-1981), who was married to Robert A. Heinlein from 1932 to 1947, and Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), author of the chilling short story, “The Lottery” (1948).
Mathiesen's The Unseen Worlds
of Emma Hardringe Britten
Somewhat less well documented is a circle of women operating as a “coven of witches” within the Order of the Magi, an esoteric order founded by Olney H. Richmond (1844-1920). Most of the little we know about this circle comes to us through a Chicago dealer in occult books, Donald G. Nelson, and from him through John M. Hansen. A second circle of Witches, in northern Michigan, is known only from the reminiscences of the late Marion Kuclo, or “Gundella” (1930-1993), who had been initiated into the circle by a relative of hers when she turned 18. To judge by a number of hints in Kuclo’s published writings, this group of witches had been influenced by the magical wing of Spiritualism.

An old friend and colleague of mine, Aidan A. Kelly, has long been trying to track down various early groups of people who called themselves Witches. Thanks to his work, I am convinced that at least a few other such small, private groups existed in the United States well before the 1950s, as well as a number of solitaries.

EDW: In recent years, you have contributed to the publication of two books written over a century ago by the American folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland. The first is a reissue of Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (Witches Almanac Ltd, 2010), a seminal work in the development of modern Pagan Witchcraft which was first published in 1899 by David Nutt. The second is a previously unpublished manuscript authored by Leland, titled The Witchcraft of Dame Darrel of York (Witches Almanac Ltd, 2011), which purports to be the fictitious grimoire of a witch in Medieval England. How did you get involved in these projects, and what is it about Leland that so interests you ?
Charles G. Leland
There are three Leland books, actually. In addition to the two you mention, I contributed a substantial introduction to an earlier edition of Aradia, edited by Mario Pazzoglini and others and published by Doug Brown (Phoenix Publishing, 1998).

I first came to Leland’s Aradia by way of Margaret A. Murray’s claim that some of the women and men executed as Witches had actually been adherents of an underground Pagan religion that had somehow survived in secret throughout the Middle Ages. Such a claim interested me as a Medievalist, so I went looking for evidence.  There was, I soon learned, the body of purportedly early texts that Gerald Gardner had passed on to his initiates. As it happened, large parts of this body of texts had already been published in various books, including two by Janet and Stewart Farrar. It did not take much work to show that these texts, in their published forms, could not possibly be older than around 1930, and that they offered no evidence whatever for any greater antiquity of the religion they described. Aidan Kelly, too, had come to similar conclusions on the basis of the same sort of analysis of roughly the same body of texts, and he had gotten access to some valuable unpublished documents also; and we soon compared results. His original text-critical analysis is of high quality, and I regard him as the academic pioneer in this area of research.

Dr. Mathiesen has contributed to both the 1998 Phoenix scholars'
edition of Aradia, and the more recent 2010 edition by The
Witches' Almanac.
Having easily disposed of Gardner’s Book of Shadows texts as evidence for the antiquity of a presumed Medieval Witch Cult, I went looking for other relevant documents, and soon I found Leland's Aradia, or The Gospel of the Witches of Italy (1899). That posed a very different sort of text-critical problem, which required me to travel to the Library of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (in Philadelphia) and the Library of Congress (in Washington, DC). Many of Leland’s own papers have been preserved in these two libraries. I did find evidence there to show how Leland had put together texts from several disparate sources to create the work that he published in 1899.

In the Library of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania I was also shown, to my surprise and delight, Leland’s wonderful unpublished jeu d’√©sprit, The Witchcraft of Dame Darrel of York. This manuscript is everything that a true Book of Shadows should have been—the myths, magic and secrets of Traditional Witchcraft—but that Gardner’s failed to be. It was a genuine work of art in its appearance, and also in its content, and I was deeply moved as I read it. And, of course, it was definitely not a copy of some earlier, lost book. Rather, it was clearly the product of Leland’s own mind, which was well stocked with the folklore and traditions of magic, and it strongly reflected Leland’s own interests and predilections. I am more proud of this edition than I am of any of my professional academic publications.

The cover design to The Witches' Almanac publication of
Leland's The Witchcraft of Dame Darrel of York,
alongside one of Leland's original manuscript
EDW: Having been involved in the field for at least two decades now, it would be interesting to hear your views on the present state of the academic study of magic and esotericism, and on the direction and problems that you feel it might face in the coming decades ?

It seems to me that colleges and universities, at least in the United States, are no longer governed by scholars and scientists, but have fallen in to the hands of businessmen and corporate leaders, who give only lip service to traditional educational ideals. At present individual academics can still manage, here and there, to fly under the radar (so to speak) and offer courses in esoteric subjects. But I see very little future for the academic study of magic and esotericism in the United States as an established field during the next few decades, for political and economic reasons, not for scholarly ones. Similarly, I see only a meager future for a number of well-established fields within the humanities, especially those requiring a mastery of European languages other than English or Spanish.

Further down the road, it is harder to say. I worry that hard times might lie ahead, rather like those predicted by Oswald Spengler in his Decline of the West. There is, I think, a significant possibility that the entire economy of the United States might crash and burn sometime within the next fifty years, and that the country’s inherited political institutions, if they fail to manage so great a crisis, will lose all credibility and legitimacy. In that event, universities and their libraries may well be treated as harshly in the United States as monasteries and their libraries were treated in England during the reign of King Henry VIII. If that is the future we face, then our problem will not be how to ensure that our field of study continues to prosper in the academic world, but how to rescue what we can and keep it safe through a coming new Dark Age.

I do hope I will be proven wrong, that I am worrying needlessly. Time will tell, only time . . .

EDW: On behalf of all my readers, I offer Dr. Mathiesen a massive thank you for giving this insightful and informative interview to Albion Calling, and wish him all the best in future.


  1. Thank you, Ethan Doyle White, for this masterful interview, which is also an important piece of history. As a friend of Dr. Mathiesen, I am deeply grateful.

    1. You are very welcome! I am always glad to hear that people appreciate my interviews.

  2. This is a great interview, especially at the end regarding possible pre-Gardnerian witches in America, and i loved the link to The Cauldron's free PDF downloads too. I will probably reblog these as a link on a post. Thanks.