Sunday, 29 June 2014

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

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

Contemporary Paganism:

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

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

Antinous statue in Potsdam

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

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

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


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

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

Concluding thoughts:

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

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


  1. Thank you for that Report on a - in certain elements - very 'typically German' conference on neo-paganism. Especially your remarks on the relatively weak Position of "non-discriminating" approaches on the issue and the Absence of sociological/anthropological perspectives seem to be typical for our academic culture in Germany: Paganism IS an established field of resarch for more or less 'historical' disciplines and the "Geisteswissenschaften". As soon as it Comes to present-day-issues, everything turns into "criticism of ideology" or "deconstructing false interpretations of history" by neo-pagans. I think, you completely hit that Point!
    regards RG

    1. Thank you for your comment, RG; it is interesting to read that the conference was "typically German" in that respect.

  2. Interesting write-up, thanks.

    In 2008, I attended a conference on ritual in Heidelberg, which was genuinely international and interdisciplinary in scope, so it can happen. There were papers on a wide variety of old and new religious movements, too.

  3. Yes, "Ritual Dynamics" in Heidelberg was in fact a really positive (in its plurality outstanding) conference in Germany. I attendet it too and was really suprised. But I think that, alas, most of the real interesting contributions to this conference came also from the international scholars...

  4. This sounds like a great conference. Are the papers presented available anywhere to read online? I am particularly interested in Caroline Tully's talk. I am curious how she would be able to comment on the Minoan Brotherhood's "utilization of the belief systems of Minoan Crete" when it is an oathbound all-male tradition with no detailed public information available. I've only been able to find a brief summary about them in a few books and online. Thanks, John

    1. Hi John. Unfortunately the papers are not currently available online, although a collected conference proceedings is in the works, currently due for publication in Brill's Metaforms series ( It is always possible that an e-version will be made available alongside the print edition, although this has not happened with prior volumes of Metaforms. Unfortunately, I doubt that the hardback will be a cheap purchase (probably $150+), but reading copies could probably be procured from certain university libraries. Hope that helps! Ethan

  5. Thanks, Ethan! I'll wait it out, but if you'd be willing to relate more to me since you attended I'd appreciate it to whet my curiosity. There's so much I'd love to read already that will break the bank. Best, John

    1. When you say "relate more", to you mean in reference to Tully's work on the Minoan Brotherhood ? Or have I misunderstood. Best, Ethan

    2. Exactly what I meant. I can send you a private message if better. Cheers. J