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.


Neo-Gnosticism:

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.

Friday, 20 June 2014

New Publication: Review article on "Britain's Pagan Heritage" in the Journal of Religion and Society 16

The JRS logo, featuring symbols of
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
It has just come to my attention that a review article which I authored some months back has seen publication in volume 16 of the Journal of Religion and Society (JRS). An online, peer-reviewed academic journal, JRS is published by the Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Creighton University, a Jesuit institution in Omaha, Nebraska which professes openness to all religions and encourages an attitude of inter-faith dialogue and scholarship. Although not one of the world's best known outlets for religious studies, one of the Journal's great strengths lies in the fact that it operates on an open-access basis, meaning that its contents are always available online for free, and are not hidden behind a paywall. As part of my conviction that wherever possible, academic knowledge should be accessible to all, I'm a big fan of the open-access system and like to offer my support to those journals which utilise it. Hence my decision to contribute a review article to JRS, which might otherwise seem like a somewhat strange choice for an atheist who studies pre-Christian European belief systems and contemporary Paganism(s)!

My review article is titled "Britain's Pagan Heritage: A Review of Ronald Hutton's Pagan Britain and Marion Gibson's Imagining the Pagan Past" and through focusing on the aforementioned two tomes it offers a critical overview of current research into the pre-Christian belief systems of Britain and the way that they have been subsequently interpreted. In doing so, it reflects the diverging theoretical attitudes of archaeology and Pagan studies, and the potential problems that we scholars face when the two collide on the issue. If this sounds like something that you might be interested in, take a look at it here!

Thursday, 19 June 2014

An Interview with Dr. Sabina Magliocco

Today here at Albion Calling I am honoured to present an interview with Dr. Sabina Magliocco, Professor of Anthropology at California State University, Northridge. A trained folklorist, Dr. Magliocco is internationally known for her work in the field of Pagan studies, having produced some of the most important research on contemporary Paganism in the United States published to date. Her research has also delved into the politics of festival in rural Sardinia, Italian vernacular magic, and the May Day customs of Cornwall. In this insightful interview, she discusses the many projects that she has undertaken over the course of her career, enlightens us on her formative influences, and tackles the "insider-outsider" divide in anthropology. Read on... 

EDW: Having attained a BA in Anthropology from Brown University in 1980, you went on to obtain an MA in Folklore at Indiana University and then a PhD from that same institution in 1988. The following year you obtained a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct post-doctoral research in Italy before obtaining a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1990 to 1994, and then at University of California, Los Angeles (1994), University of California, Santa Barbara (1995), and University of California, Berkeley (1995–96) before finally arriving at California State University, Northridge in 1997, where you have remained ever since. At want point did you decide that you wanted to pursue an academic career and what were the formative influences that made you decide that you wanted to devote yourself to the related fields of anthropology and folkloristics ?

Dr. Magliocco engaged in fieldwork in Monghidoro, Emilia-Romagna,
Northern Italy, 2005. Photograph by Giorgio Polmoni.
SM: Without a doubt, the greatest formative influence on my personal development was growing up between two cultures: those of Italy and the United States. Unlike the typical immigrant experience, which is one of loss of the home language and culture, my family shuttled back and forth in a yearly seasonal migration, spending the school year in the American Midwest and summers in Italy. This pattern allowed us to maintain strong bonds with our culture of origin; we children essentially grew up bilingual and bicultural. But belonging to two cultures and shuttling between them also creates feelings of disjuncture, of always being marginal and temporary, of belonging at once to both cultures and fully to neither. My aunt used to call me her little platypus: I was an odd child who was neither one thing nor another. I grew to be very observant and extremely adaptable; I learned to identify the markers of being a cultural insider and imitate them in order to not be excluded by the other children. Sometimes it worked; many times, it did not, and especially in the context of my American schooling, I grew up feeling marginalized and liminal. Eventually I came to feel comfortable in the margins, sympathetic to other cultural, ethnic, and racial outsiders as well as towards anything that was excluded or stigmatized by the dominant paradigm.

Going into academia seems a logical choice in hindsight, but it was not a foregone conclusion for me. I come from a family of physicians, and my father’s wish was that I follow him into that noble profession. From a young age, he trained me in the methods of scientific observation: every weekend, we would look at slides of various materials under my great-grandfather’s old brass microscope. Some were slides his grandfather had made as a young field veterinarian in Sicily which my father had kept and brought to the United States; others we made ourselves, looking at onion skin, pond water, cork, and other things from the natural world. My father taught me to keep a field journal with meticulous notes, commenting on each aspect from the collection of materials to the nature of the cells we looked at. When I was a little older, he introduced me to the library at the university where he taught, and I began to do research there for my school papers. 

Magliocco, c.1969 along the Green River, Ohio.
Photograph by E. Bruno Magliocco.
But much as I loved science and the natural world, my mother’s love of literature also transferred itself to me. She was trained in Classical languages and literature, and named us all out of the Latin authors. From the time I was small, she read me children’s versions of Classical Greek and Roman myths, folktales, and stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Her mother, my maternal grandmother, was a gifted storyteller who would spin fantastic tales that blended elements from popular romances with details from our own lives, making it seem that the heroes and heroines were children just like us. These stories, plus the family legends recounting my parents’ survival during the Second World War and the deeds of distinguished ancestors, created a kind of connective tissue that bridged the gaps of culture and geography in my life. My love of stories was reflected in my childhood games, in which I created elaborate cultures and folktale-like scripts for my troll dolls, or acted out stories I read in books, such as Emilio Salgari’s novels of pirate adventures in distant corners of the world.

While I began university with the idea that I would study medicine, it quickly became apparent that I had more of an aptitude for humanistic disciplines. I wanted to write fiction and poetry, but as a college student, I had little life experience to draw on, and I was better at expository writing, anyway. In my anthropology and folklore classes, I discovered a vocabulary for expressing the cultural disjunction I felt growing up bicultural, as well as methods of analysis that made use of my scientific skills. I was also strongly influenced in my career choice by an aunt by marriage who was a cultural anthropologist at the University of Bologna, and by Margaret Mead, a close family friend – she and my father had met when he was working at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, where Mead was a frequent lecturer. I was powerfully drawn to the idea of fieldwork – living for long periods of time in unfamiliar cultures and engaging in participant-observation. In the end, I chose to specialize in folkloristics because I was more interested in European cultures and traditions than in those of Third World peoples, and because I was deeply invested in so many of the genres within its purview, including supernatural legends, foodways, folk crafts and architecture, and folksongs (I enjoyed a stint as an amateur folksinger from my teens to my mid-thirties). I loved the methodology of cultural anthropology, and folkloristics seemed to unite all of my various passions under a single discipline.

EDW: Your early published research focused on a pastoral highland community on the Italian island of Sardinia, looking in particular at their Catholic festivals and highlighting the socio-economic pressures that they were experiencing as a result of globalisation. Your research would be published as The Two Madonnas: The Politics of Festival in a Sardinian Community (Peter Lang, 1993; second ed., Waveland Press, 2005), although I am given to understand that an Italian translation was also published in 1995. What made you decide to head all the way over to Europe to undertake this research and what did you see as this project's struggles and achievements ?

SM: I grew up partly in Italy, spending most of my childhood summers with my grandmothers in Rome, or with cousins at various seaside villas along the Mediterranean coast; so doing fieldwork in Europe seemed like a natural extension of my early life. I originally wanted to work in Ireland or one of the Celtic countries, and in fact studied Gaelic for a time; but my graduate advisor Linda Dégh, who came from the Hungarian school of European ethnology, persuaded me that it would be best to work in my own country, with a culture with which I was already more or less familiar. I chose Sardinia because of a woman who had worked as a domestic for my grandmother, and to whom I had grown much attached. Bettina, as she was called, looked after me during those summers I spent in Italy, and regaled me with stories of her village in the Sardinian highlands. I imbued it with romantic, pastoral ideals that were intensified by the general scorn with which the region was regarded by my urban, bourgeois family; already drawn to the marginal and rejected, it only made me more determined to go there one day. After my grandmother’s death, Bettina retired to her village, where I visited her in the summer of 1983. I like to say that Sardinia got into my blood that summer: I knew then, with a strange feeling of destiny, that I would do my doctoral fieldwork there.

Bessude in February 1986. Photograph by Sabina Magliocco.

Yet even spending part of my childhood in Italy could not have prepared me for the culture shock I experienced when I first went to live in the village of Bessude with my old nanny and her family. There were all sorts of tensions and struggles, beginning with those of social class and extending to gender expectations and political conflicts. I grew up in a bourgeois, cosmopolitan, urban family, with a father who treated me as a son; Bessude was a peasant village, and I was both resented and regarded as an outsider by most of its inhabitants. What I knew about rural Mediterranean life came from academic books. I had a lot to learn. I eventually forged very strong bonds with a group of young women also in their twenties, who lived at home in the village and either attended the university in Sassari or worked at various jobs. Through them, I gained access to other village networks, as well as the organizing committees of the festivals that I was studying. I also became aware of local political tensions and how they came to be expressed through the festivals. The results were reflected in my ethnography The Two Madonnas: the Politics of Festival in a Sardinian Community (1993, 2005), a book that is quite sensitive to tensions between the categories of “tradition” and “modernity” as they were expressed in the margins of Europe in the 1980s and early 1990s. Because of my gender and position as a fieldworker, it offers unprecedented insights into the dreams, ideals, and struggles of village women, showing them as cultural and political agents in the context of globalization.

EDW: Your interest in the folklore of Italy has of course continued into recent years, as is evidenced by some of your important research into various Italian folk beliefs regarding magic and the preternatural; you have penned papers on Italian “cunning folk” as well as on the folk figure of Aradia, in which you put together a compelling case that the latter had genuine folkloric antecedents and was not the fictitious creation of American folklorist Charles Leland for his Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1899). What led to these particular areas of exploration and is Italian folk magic a topic that you hope to delve into further in future ?

SM: When I was living in Bessude, folk magic and the preternatural were all around me. Even though I was studying festivals and economic change, I collected a great deal of supernatural legends, charms, healing, and magic, partly because it was interwoven with material about saints and their festivals, but also because I was trained as an anthropologist to pay attention to everything that was going on around me. I had the opportunity to interview several traditional healers, and while I did not write about them in my first publications, it was always my intention to return to that material and do something with it.

Charles Leland's Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1899),
a book purporting to describe a pagan witchcraft religion in
Northern Italy.

When I began to study contemporary Paganism, and especially as I became interested in ethnic varietals such as Stregheria, I was curious about the alleged connection between Old World and newer, reclaimed forms of magic. Many Italian American streghe told stories of inheriting their tradition from a grandmother or other relative, and while some of these could easily be dismissed as typical “grandmother stories,” a form of invented tradition or “fakelore,” others were more compelling and not so easily dismissed, especially because I had seen practitioners of Italian folk magic first-hand. This interest led me to collaborate with two Italian scholars, Augusto Ferraiuolo of the University of Caserta and Boston University, and Placida Staro, an independent scholar affiliated with the University of Bologna, to examine vernacular magical traditions in Campania and Emilia-Romagna in 2005-06. Our work showed that there was some continuity between the beliefs and practices of revival practitioners in the U.S. and folk magical traditions in Italy. In some cases, Italian American streghe were re-contextualizing and elaborating on healing traditions that existed in many families, such as the removal of the evil eye, which is still ubiquitous in many regions.

I was also aware of Charles Godfrey Leland’s claims in Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1899), and while there, too, I suspected a great deal of embroidery and invention, I had a niggling suspicion that some core of the work might bear a relationship to actual practice. It was by bringing together historical research with some of my earlier work on legends and magic in Sardinia that I unraveled the puzzle of the name “Aradia,” linking her to a Sardinian folk character known as “S’Araja Justa” or “Sa Rejusta.” We know this character goes back as far as the 13th century in Sardinia, and that her presence coincides with the influence of Pisan and Genoese clerics, who brought Italian inquisitorial ideas to the island; therefore, it is quite likely that a character with the name “Aradia” existed in Italian folklore at that time. Whether this character exactly corresponds to Leland’s Aradia is another matter; since folklore changes constantly in response to changes in the socio-cultural context, by the time Leland arrived in Florence in the late 19th century, Aradia’s story might have undergone a number of further changes. I did not find evidence to support Leland’s claims of witchcraft as a religion with an unbroken chain going back to Etruscan times; that is highly unlikely and impossible to prove.

I still have a great deal of material on Italian vernacular magic that I would like to publish someday, but in the current economic climate, it’s been difficult to find a publisher interested in this material or grants to support the writing of the project. This one may have to wait until I retire from teaching and can dedicate myself more fully to research and writing.

EDW: After your research in Sardinia, you re-focused your research in order to explore the contemporary Pagan community of the United States, resulting in the publication of your two books, Neo-Pagan Sacred Art and Altars: Making Things Whole (University Press of Mississippi, 2002) and the more detailed Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004). You were probably the first trained folklorist to actually explore this subject matter, thus bringing an important new perspective to the field of Pagan studies. What was it that inspired you to delve into this new area of research, particularly one that was potentially quite controversial among academic anthropologists and folklorists at the time ?

Magliocco's Neo-Pagan Sacred Art
and Altars
. Copyright Uni of Mississipi Press.
SM: After I left the field in 1986, the political situation in Bessude became quite volatile, so much so that my efforts to publish The Two Madonnas in Italian got caught up in the internecine conflict. The local administration, which at first had supported my project, felt that the results did not portray their community as they would have liked; they thought my book made them look backwards and old-fashioned. The mayor took out her anger and disappointment on Bettina and her family, because they had hosted me, by taking away a part of their land in order to build a road – a road to nowhere, as it turned out. They had relied on this land to grow vegetables and pasture sheep, so the loss hurt them economically. I was mortified by this outcome. As an anthropologist, I am bound by a professional code of ethics to put the good of the people I work with before my own, and I felt responsible. The last thing I had ever wanted was to cause lasting harm to the very person who had nurtured me like a second mother, and who had made possible my doctoral dissertation research and the career I hoped would come from that. I took it as a personal failure on my part, and for a time, I did not want to return to Sardinia for fear that more harm would come to the people I loved as a result of my presence. This coincided with a period of instability in my professional and domestic life in which I had neither the funds nor the possibility to return to Italy, so I began to cast about for a new research topic. Since I had examined women’s roles in ritual and politics, I hoped to find another venue in which to explore that theme closer to home. I was also keenly aware that American academic publishing was becoming less interested in European ethnography; several colleagues advised me to find something more relevant and significant to study.

At the time, I was teaching a course I had developed called “The Supernatural in the Modern World” (a course I still teach today). It looks at vernacular traditions that make reference to magic and the preternatural against the context of an Enlightenment construction of modernity. Among the topics I covered was modern Paganism; I used Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, which had just come out in 1989. I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and I became aware of a woman called Selena Fox who claimed to be a Witch and was a graduate student in the School of Social Work on campus. I invited her to come speak to my class about her traditions, and she, in turn, invited me and my students to an Earth Day ritual at Circle Sanctuary, a nature preserve she ran with her husband, Dennis Carpenter, out near Mt. Horeb. On a sunny, cold Saturday, I rented a van from the uni and drove down there with a passel of students from the class. The ritual was like nothing I had experienced before. It was held on a tall mound encircled by birth and oak trees, with a view of the valley below. Selena, a powerful woman with flowing dark hair and a strong, deep voice, called on the four directions, invoked the names of goddesses and ancestors, and advocated for a spiritual connection to the land and political action to protect it. It seemed to me then that I had found a possible topic – that modern Paganism might be another way for me to explore the connections between gender, power, and ritual in a new context.

Magliocco's Witching Culture.
Copyright Uni of Pennsylvania Press.

I thought my new topic was timely and more interesting to American academic publishers than peasant culture in rural Italy; in fact I was encouraged to pursue it by several senior colleagues. I did not at first realize how controversial this new area would be among academics; but even if I had known, I don’t think I would have made a different decision. As in the case of Sardinia, I felt a sense that fate was drawing me towards this project. I have always followed my heart and intuition in research; I honestly don’t think I can work any other way.

At first, one of the things that drew me to study modern Paganism was, paradoxically, a longing for my land of lost content in Sardinia. I missed the friendships I had formed there with other girls my age; I longed for the sense of community, the connectedness of things, and the rhythm of the year cycle scanned in festivals and celebrations. In modern Pagan festivals, I could experience some of the same feelings – jumping over a midsummer bonfire, for example, at the same time that I knew my friends in a village half a world away were doing the same thing. Eventually, I formed the same kinds of close bonds with my Pagan interlocutors that I had with my Sardinian ones, and the new project took on a life of its own. When, at a ritual in 1995, I experienced a vision of the goddess Brigid melting my heart in her forge and shaping it into a new one, when she put it into my chest while saying, “This is your heart, and fire shall make it whole,” I interpreted it as a confirmation that my field methodology, my particular way of working, was valid, and would heal the wounds I still felt as a result of what had happened in Sardinia.

EDW: In Witching Culture, you explained that although not raised a Pagan, in coming to study the community you went through an initiatory process and found yourself having genuine spiritual experiences as a member of a Wiccan coven. Thus, you bridged the traditional anthropological divide between the insider and outsider. Given that the issues surrounding the insider-outside and emic-etic standpoints within Pagan studies have been reignited fairly recently by Markus Altena Davidsen, could you provide us with an overview of your own perspective on this issue ? More specifically, I'd be interested to learn more about how you have reconciled being an academic anthropologist and folklorist with being a practising Pagan given the sometimes hostile attitude toward the latter in the academy ?

SM: So much has been written about this issue in anthropology in the last 20 years that it still amazes me when it comes up. Aren’t we done with it yet? I guess not, so here goes.

First of all, as a folklorist/anthropologist, my job is to access other cultures to try to understand them, and bring those insights back to my own culture so we can learn more about others and ourselves. My methodology involves participant-observation – note the “participant” part. You can’t learn much about another culture or religion if you’re not willing to participate, and religious rites require some basic level of participation as a show of respect. When I was studying festivals in Sardinia, I attended dozens of celebratory masses, as well as weekly Sunday mass, where I did what I had to do to blend in: I learned to stand when other congregants stood, kneel when they knelt, and cross myself when they did, even though I was not Catholic or even Christian. I did not take communion or go to confession – but then, neither did most people my age. As Jone Salomonsen noted, modern Pagan rituals are highly participatory events; there is no outside from which an observer can watch, undetected, to discover what’s going on. This is especially true of mystery traditions such as Wicca. So I did what any anthropologist or folklorist worth her salt should do: I found a group with which I felt comfortable, which felt comfortable with me and my research project; I attended their rituals for a year, and eventually I underwent initiation. I also attended dozens of rituals from other Pagan traditions. In some of these contexts, I had extraordinary experiences – and thank goodness I did, because had I not had them, I would have missed the whole point of what my interlocutors were experiencing: I would have failed to understand one of the primary reasons why they found their religions compelling, powerful, and important. In other words, I would have failed at my job.

I am hardly the first anthropologist or folklorist to have had these experiences. Scholars studying a number of mystery traditions have undergone initiation to better understand them – for example, Karen McCarthy Brown, who studied Vodou among Haitian immigrants in Brooklyn, was initiated as a practitioner and “married” to the lwa Dambala as part of her work. Paul Stoller underwent initiation as a sorcerer among the Songhay of Niger. Jeanne Favret-Saada, studying witchcraft in rural France, found herself having to participate in the world of magic to some degree, because, as she found, when it comes to magic, there is no “outside;” either you’re an insider, or you won’t learn anything at all. Now, when you get involved with magic and ritual, you are inevitably going to have some unusual, even extraordinary experiences; that’s the whole point of these events as art forms. Again, many anthropologists before me have had these experiences, and some have written about them. The best-known is probably Edie Turner, who saw a spirit in the shape of a dark cloud rise from the body of a patient who was undergoing a healing ritual among the Ndembu; but others include Bruce Grindal, Raymond Lee, David Young, and Jean-Guy Goulet.  

Dr. Magliocco at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, Southern England, 2005.
Photograph by Jaynie Rabb Aydin.

Some reviewers of Witching Culture have criticized me for writing about these experiences, perhaps even for having them, assuming that they had somehow changed my beliefs and clouded my ability to be objective about modern Paganisms. This point of view is mistaken on a number of counts. The first error – assuming that my beliefs changed as a result of initiation and participation – is understandable, because coming from a Christocentric perspective, as most Westerners unconsciously do, belief is seen as the central feature of religion. But like the majority of world religions, modern Paganisms are not primarily religions of belief; they are religions of practice and experience. My beliefs have not fundamentally changed as a result of the experiences I had during my Pagan fieldwork. Instead, I have a deepened, enriched understanding of a religious culture and its performative art forms that helped me portray it in a more holistic way. In fact, had I not had the experiences, the picture I would have been able to paint would have been incomplete. No one would bat an eye if a folklorist studying a potter apprenticed herself to that craft in order to better understand how pots are produced, or if an ethnomusicologist studying Irish folk music learned to play the fiddle or (gods help us) the bódhran. But because we’re dealing here with religions, a co-religionist is assumed to try to convert others rather than to give an unbiased account. Once again, this misconception is based on an evangelical model of religion that does not apply to any of the modern Paganisms.

The second way that the critics are mistaken is in assuming that it is possible to give an objective account of a different culture. The postcolonial, postmodern critique of the social sciences has pretty much eliminated the idea of objective research – the notion that the researcher operates as a completely neutral observer who can deliver the “Truth” about another society. As James Clifford stated so eloquently, all ethnographies are only partial truths, because we all bring unique points of view and prejudices with us wherever we go. Those viewpoints and prejudices influence what we see, how we see it, what we think is important, and how we convey it. In that sense, as Clifford wrote, all ethnographies are “fictions,” in the sense of carefully constructed documents, rather than pure, unadulterated facts. The important thing is to admit to ourselves and our readers where our blind spots might lie, so they can better evaluate the texts we produce.

In the Introduction to Witching Culture, I tried to lay out for readers exactly what my biases were. As you say, I was not raised as a Pagan. However, I was raised in a non-religious household by parents who had been schooled in Italy in the 1930s, with a national curriculum that celebrated the glories of Classical Rome as a Golden Age to which modern Italians should aspire. While neither of my parents’ families were politically Fascist, it would be nearly impossible not to be influenced on some level by the rhetoric that predominated at the time. In turn, their viewpoint influenced my own education: I studied Latin for eight years, and Ancient Greek for two; I spent summers exploring Italian archaeological sites and museums; I steeped myself in Classical literature as well as young adult fiction that reconstructed that period for a modern audience – I loved the works of Mary Renault, Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart. As I grew older, my interests extended to the Iron Age cultures and literatures of the Celts; in addition to The Mabinogion and The Táin, I read the works of Lloyd Alexander and Evangeline Walton, and of course, the fantasy literature of J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. LeGuin, to name just a few of my favorite authors from that time. My literary passions were reflected in my activities: I joined my high school’s Classics Club, which put on plays re-enacting scenes from Classical mythology, and I continued to elaborate on the make-believe world I had created for the trolls, producing books of troll epic poetry, elaborate genealogies, and histories of the troll world. All the while, I was also very engaged with the natural world: whether along the Italian maremma or in the hills and hollows of the Ohio valley, I spent long afternoons in the woods observing nature, watching animals and often caring for orphaned wildlife. I developed a worldview that was deeply informed by both my reading of the Classics and my participation in the natural world. Among modern Pagans, I found people whose worldview was quite similar to mine, influenced by many of the same books and pursuits. It shouldn’t be surprising that even after my field research was over, I found myself continuing to enjoy their company and participating in their rituals.

Pagan scholars are not the only ones who experience a sense of split allegiances in scholarship. Feminist scholars, minority scholars, and scholars who are what Lila Abu-Lughod calls “halfies” of one sort or another all face this dilemma, and must carefully negotiate between their belonging to a community and their study of it. Yet the very act of studying something forces us to distance ourselves from it, to be reflexive about our participation in it, and thus changes our relationship with it. There is really no such thing as a “native ethnographer.” Along the same vein, anthropological notions of “going native” are based on old-fashioned ideas that served to separate Western anthropologists from the colonized peoples they studied. They also assume that identity is fixed and unchanging. We now understand the fluid, evolving, and contextual nature of identity, such that who we are and how we choose to identify depends on many different factors, including whom we are with. That means that either-or constructions of identity are inaccurate and unhelpful.

The key to doing anthropology or folklore research effectively lies in successfully negotiating between the cultures you are studying and the culture of the academy. It is a form of “walking between the worlds,” as Pagans like to say, only in this case, I’m not talking about the spirit world, but about cultures that belong very much to the material world. You must learn to move between them with grace and reflection. You go deep, participate, get close to people, feel what it’s like to be one of them – then pull away and reflect on what just happened, using analysis and theoretical language to frame your thoughts. Then you go back and do it all over again. Because I grew up shuttling between two cultures, this process is second nature to me; I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t doing it. But anyone can learn it.

You ask how I’ve reconciled being an academic anthropologist and folklorist with being a practicing Pagan. I find this an odd question, because it presumes these two worlds are somehow impossible to reconcile, while I don’t see much of a contradiction between them. [EDW: just to clarify on this point, I did not mean to presume that the two worlds were irreconcilable, but rather they are in many cases mistrustful and critical of one another. Of course, in hindsight I can see how my use of language here could have been clearer!] Academic research in folklore, anthropology and archaeology made possible the reclamation of tradition that is at the root of modern Paganisms; it’s not something apart from Paganisms. I think it was Ronald Hutton who observed that academia is a three-degree initiatory system with robes even more splendid than those of most modern Pagan traditions. The truth is that the academic world and the Pagan world are both “homes” in which I feel comfortable. They have different rules, to be sure, but then, most of us belong simultaneously to various subcultures that have different conventions, styles of dress, and modes of behavior, and we move seamlessly among them. If you play a sport, you wouldn’t dress, behave, or speak on the pitch the same way you would with your boss at work. It’s no more complicated than that.

It probably helps that I am not a very religious person. My strengths lie in research, organization, planning, and creating an environment in which other people can experience enchantment and express creativity. Those administrative skills make me a good teacher and department head as well as an effective priestess. I am lucky in that I have experienced very little prejudice or discrimination on the job because of my religious practice. I teach at a regional comprehensive university in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the world. The presence of that diversity makes my Paganism kind of a non-issue: I have colleagues and students who are Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Druid, agnostic, and atheist, as well as just about every variety of Christian you can think of. When I teach courses in the anthropology of religion, they are very much about active pluralism: preparing students to interact and negotiate with people of other religious traditions, including modern Paganisms, with mutual respect and appreciation.

EDW: One aspect of the American contemporary Pagan community which you have examined in closer depth is the tradition of Stregheria, a variant of Wicca that adopts elements from Italian folklore and which has proved popular with members of the Italian-American community. Indeed, your paper on the subject, included as a chapter in Michael F. Strmiska's edited volume Modern Paganism in World Cultures (ABC-CLIO, 2006) is the foremost academic study of the topic. What inspired you to explore this particular area and how do you feel practitioners of Stregheria have reacted to your work ?

SM: I wrote above about my research on Italian vernacular magical traditions. Another research area in which I have published is Italian American folklore. I was immediately interested in Stregheria because it united these two interests of mine. I saw Stregheria as a creative way some Italian Americans were choosing to craft identities that re-connected them with some of the traditions of their ancestors, albeit, of course, in a form that suited their contemporary identities. As a folklorist, I see tradition as a process that involves constant adaptation, variation, and innovation; Stregheria typifies that process. It is certainly not an exact reproduction of Italian vernacular practices as they existed in rural Italy, but it reformulates them, inserts them into a modern Wiccan framework, and creates a narrative around them which makes them appealing to second-, third-, and fourth generation Italian Americans, as well as to members of other ethnic groups.

Some practitioners of Stregheria and other modern Italian-based Pagan traditions at first reacted with hostility to my publications, which they interpreted as trying to de-legitimize their practices. I’ve even gotten threats and hate mail. However, the majority of respondents have actually been very positive and helpful. Information provided by my readers helped me more substantively connect vernacular Italian magical traditions with Stregheria. I have warm, supportive relationships with Lori Bruno, one of the co-founders (along with the late Leo Martello) of the Trinacrian Rose tradition in New York, and Raven Grimassi, the architect of Stregheria. Lori hosted me in high style when I visited New York in 1999; Raven and I have presented together at Pantheacon, the largest American Pagan conference, and over time our views have come closer together. I see him as a creative innovator and preservationist of Italian American vernacular magic.

EDW: One of your more recent projects has been in examining the 'Obby 'Oss folk practice that takes place every May Day in Padstow, Cornwall, as well as the manner in which it has been adopted by a Wiccan group, the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn, in Berkeley, California. On the basis of this research you and John Bishop produced the short documentary film Oss Tales (2007), which is available on DVD. What led you to explore this particular folk practice and will you be delving further into Cornish folklore and the manner in which it has been appropriated and re-used in future ?

The DVD of Oss Tales. Image by Tim Parr.
SM: I am interested in how academic research feeds back into communities, influencing how people understand and practice tradition. American folklorist and film-maker Alan Lomax had a tremendous impact on our understanding of folklore today. John Bishop, who is Alan’s nephew, and I were curious about how Lomax’s film “Oss Oss, Wee Oss” (1953) affected two communities: Padstow, a Cornish town with a May Day hobby horse where Lomax had shot “Oss Oss” in 1951; and a group of Pagans in Berkeley, California who were inspired to re-create certain aspects of the Cornish custom as part of their Beltane celebration, directly as a result of Lomax’s film. We went to Berkeley to interview members of the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn (NROOGD) as they rehearsed and performed the Beltane rite. We were able to get a small grant to travel to Padstow with two students to film the May Day custom fifty years after Lomax’s expedition. We also interviewed a number of film-makers who were involved with that project, including the late English folklorist Peter Kennedy. The DVD set, which includes the original Lomax film, digitally remastered, is a study of the effects of folklore scholarship on the process of tradition.

While I would love to delve further into Cornish folklore and its revival and appropriation, I have a number of very capable colleagues, such as Amy Hale, who are already doing that much better than I could. I continue to examine the intersections of academic knowledge and modern Paganisms, most recently the reburial issue and English Heritage, in an essay entitled “Intangible Rites: Heritage Sites, the Reburial Issue, and Modern Pagan Religions in Britain,” in Cultural Heritage in Transit (2014).

EDW: From 2004 to 2009 you served as the editor for Western Folklore, a peer-reviewed journal devoted to the folklore of the Western United States. How did you come to take on this position and what do you see as the importance of regionally-focused journals such as this one ?

SM: Although Western Folklore started out as the Journal of the California Folklore Society in 1942, its focus is now international, as is that of the other major American folklore journals, Journal of American Folklore and Journal of Folklore Research. It is the highest-rated and longest continuously-running of the regional folklore journals in the United States. In a large country such as the United States, regional folklore journals are important because they often focus on issues that are specific to one part of the country; they may have to do with a regional culture, ethnic minority, occupational group, or social movement that is local, although globalization and the advent of the Internet are increasingly deterritorializing all these issues. Regional journals can sometimes take more risks and publish more cutting-edge, innovative research than flagship journals, which are under a different kind of pressure to establish and maintain disciplinary norms. When Editor Barre Toelken of Utah State University suffered a stroke in 2003, the journal’s managing editor was searching for someone to take his place. Ours is a small field; so many regional journals had already succumbed to the economic pressures facing academic publishing that I didn’t want the same fate to befall WF. The loss of even one journal would mean significantly fewer venues for the publication of works in folkloristics. With the support of my university, I decided to step up, because I believe in the journal’s mission and wanted to make a contribution. It was an interesting and valuable experience for me and for the students who served as my editorial assistants during the five years of my tenure as editor.

Dr. Magliocco with an orphaned possum she had
hand-raised, 1980.
Photograph by E. Bruno Magliocco.
EDW: What projects have you got on the horizon which we should be keeping our eyes out for ?

SM: The project I’m working on now is called “Animals and the Spiritual Imagination.” It grows out of my lifelong love of animals as part of the natural world. I began by investigating how modern Pagans conceptualize animals as spiritual beings and make use of them in religious practice, but as a result of my students’ research, the project has now expanded to include mainstream religions. We know that most Pagan cosmologies have an important place for animals, but one of the surprises (I love the way research always surprises me) has been the discovery of how members of mainstream religions create vernacular cosmologies that give animals, especially household pets, important spiritual dimensions that are often neglected or denied by formal religious teachings. We also looked at how spiritual beliefs about animals affect behavior. Here, too, there have been some surprises: it seems that while Pagans are much more likely to attribute spiritual qualities to animals and work with them in spiritual practice, they don’t differ significantly from members of mainstream religions in terms of how they have modified their behavior towards animal and environmental causes. So perhaps belief is not as important in motivating behavioral change as we previously thought. I’m working on publishing some preliminary articles based on this data, but eventually hope to gather it all into another book that will be filled with wonderful stories my respondents have told me about their experiences with animals in both material and spiritual realms.

EDW: I like to round off every interview here at Albion Calling by asking my interviewees where they think that their respective field(s) are heading in the coming decades. In your case, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the future prospects for both folkloristics and Pagan studies, and in particular what you see as the potential for further intersection between the two areas ?

SM: Let me start by answering your second question first. I see many exciting possibilities for fruitful intersections between Folklore and Pagan Studies. Folklore is the study of traditional expressive culture and informal knowledge in complex societies, and its remit coincides perfectly with many aspects of modern Paganism, as my work has demonstrated. But my research has barely scratched the surface of all the different ways these subjects could be approached; I would love to see a new generation of scholars applying interdisciplinary approaches informed by the study of folklore to a variety of issues in modern Paganisms. There are, however, some serious obstacles to this.

Both folkloristics and Pagan studies occupy marginal positions in the academy today. To my knowledge, there is no official academic program in Pagan Studies at any American, European, or British university. There are a number of scholars who have written about Paganism from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, but most of us are not at research universities where we can train Ph.D. students. There is only one institution in the United States that grants a Ph.D. specifically in Folklore: Indiana University. Folklore Ph.D.s are available at a few other institutions, including Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin – Madison, University of Oregon, the University of California at Berkeley, and Utah State University, but at all of these, Folklore is an interdisciplinary program, and the student’s primary degree is in another discipline, such as English Literature or Anthropology. While I am entirely in favor of interdisciplinarity, the administrative realities of interdisciplinary programs are that they are invariably dependent on a number of variables they cannot control for funding and staffing, putting them in a very vulnerable position in today’s corporatized universities. This creates a situation that is not sustainable for long-term growth in either of these specializations.

For Pagan Studies and Folklore to thrive in the academy, there would need to be active Ph.D. programs at research universities in both fields. These programs would produce trained experts who would, in turn, be hired by viable departments and programs. That isn’t happening, and unfortunately, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. The problem isn’t necessarily with these areas of study – although that is not to say that Folklore and Pagan Studies don’t have their challenges; they do. The trouble lies in the changing model of academia as it increasingly loses public funding and becomes more corporatized, and as our national values (I’m talking here about the U.S. specifically, but much of what I say also applies to universities in Canada, Europe and Great Britain) move further and further away from the humanities, and more towards viewing colleges and universities as job training programs. In this climate, any discipline that does not have an immediate practical application is vulnerable. Folklore has to a certain extent been able to insert itself into, or reinvent itself as, “heritage management” or “cultural resource management.” The challenge for Pagan Studies, if it is to survive and thrive, is how to make itself relevant in the new economy. While the purview of Folklore is expanding as scholars reimagine it as “traditional knowledge” and “heritage,” the purview of Pagan Studies is being challenged by struggles to define “Paganism,” both within the movement itself, and by scholars who study it.

I think one of the greatest risks for Pagan Studies is the same thing that beleaguers other area studies programs: becoming a ghetto to which anyone working on Paganism is relegated, by virtue of a focus on that particular subject. The way around this is to come at the subject from a strong disciplinary focus. My advice to young people who want to “do” Pagan Studies is to choose a discipline and get the best disciplinary training they can in that field: become historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, sociologists, literary or language scholars, and so forth, and approach issues within modern Paganism from the perspective of that discipline. Disciplinary rigor doesn’t mean we can’t be interdisciplinary, but it forces us to learn methodology and theory through which we frame research. Strong disciplinary training can circumvent some of the flaws that Markus A. Davidsen points out in his critical essay. In an ideal world, Pagan Studies programs would emerge at research universities after a number of scholars who study Pagan subjects have already established themselves in a variety of disciplinary niches.

The good news is that courses on Folklore and Pagan topics are increasingly part of the curriculum at a variety of institutions, from community colleges to research universities, in departments of Anthropology, English, Religious Studies, and Communication. That means undergraduates are being exposed to both bodies of knowledge, creating a new generation educated about folklore and Paganisms. My hope is that this will eventually lead to a new generation of folklorists and Pagan Studies scholars working in traditional academic disciplines, who can come together in strength to form new kinds of interdisciplinary learning environments that will thrive in the marketplace of higher education.
EDW: Dr. Magliocco, thank you so much for talking to Albion Calling today. You've given me and my readers much to think about; I wish you all the best in future!