Saturday, 27 December 2014

Some Thoughts on Academic Impact and the Contemporary Pagan Movement

As most academics must surely be aware, a major factor of contemporary academia, at least in the UK, is that of impact; the contribution that one's research makes to wider society. Universities and funding bodies are obsessed with impact, and many would say rightly so - after all, most academic institutions are subsidised by the state and its tax-payers, and thus they should be engaging in projects that contribute back to society, rather than simply undertaking obscure research for the sake of research that interests few and is useful to even fewer. Many fields of research make a clear contribution to society and/or the state; medical science for instance has obvious health benefits for many sectors of the population, while technological innovation similarly eases and enriches the lives of many. But what of Pagan studies ? Does this small, and still comparatively fledgling field make much of an impact on wider society ? Does the average person on the street give a monkeys about the etymology of "Wicca" or the theological structure of Robert Cochrane's Witchcraft tradition

I've been thinking about this issue in large part due to two recent events that have involved me and my work. The first occured a few weeks ago when Cara Schulz, a reporter for popular U.S.-based Pagan news site The Wild Hunt, asked for my opinion on a story that had been making the rounds online; the story highlighted recent research conducted by Georgian geologists which claimed to have found new evidence for the factual underpinnings of the ancient Hellenic myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Although my expertise certainly doesn't lie within the remit of ancient Greece, I had no doubt been chosen both for my academic (and specifically archaeological) credentials, as well as my Pagan-friendly status. Independently, Schulz had also consulted my colleague and friend Caroline Tully, who like myself juggles archaeology with contemporary Pagan studies but whose perspective differs from mine in that she is a practicing Pagan herself (for those interested, I'm a secular humanist). The Wild Hunt article, which is available here, quoted both of us on the merits and problems of the news story and the research that it was based upon.

Shortly after, I came across a series of informational videos which had been posted to YouTube by educational channel OathBoundSecrets. These videos were devoted to a variety of Pagan and esoteric subjects, and to my surprise a number of them (such as this one on the etymology of "Wicca" and this on Robert Cochrane) relied upon and quoted my own research. It seemed apparent that the creators of these videos had obtained the information not first-hand from my publications themselves, but from Wikipedia articles in which some of my work is quoted and cited; evidence for my long-held position that while academically-problematic, Wikipedia is nevertheless a resource with great potential for transmitting the findings of academic research to a far larger audience. For me, this was really nice to see, because it showed that practicing Wiccans are actually finding my work to be of interest and utility to them; clearly, my work is having an impact, even if it might only be a small one.

Thus, there are clearly instances where practicing Pagans are making good use of the research publications brought out by scholars of Pagan studies, and where they are further approaching said scholars for advice on scholarly matters. This can only be a good thing. But there are of course pitfalls which need to be considered. In his much-debated paper in the Method and Theory in the Study of Religion journal, the religious studies scholar Markus Altena Davidsen charged Pagan studies with being dominated by practicing Pagans themselves, thus spending more time promulgating contemporary Paganism than critically analysing it. Keeping this in mind, we should be concerned that as Pagan studies scholars, we might be unduly focusing on our impact within the Pagan movement itself rather than in other sectors of society. While I think it clear that large sectors of the Pagan community are certainly going to be very interested in our findings, we should not be blind to the fact that many other individuals - those interested in new religious movements or reception of the ancient world, public policy makers, and no doubt others, would be interested too. After all, if myself - as a non-Pagan scholar of Pagan studies - can be fascinated by the contemporary Pagan movement, then surely many other non-Pagans can be too ? This is something that we, as scholars, need to have a conversation about. 

Monday, 22 December 2014

The latest volume of "Correspondences" and my latest book review

Check out the webpage of Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism, where editors Jimmy Elwing and Aren Roukema have just brought out volume 2, number 2 of the fantastic peer-reviewed publication. This edition contains three research articles: Robert A. Saunders on the depiction of pre-Christian religion in TV shows Game of Thrones and The Vikings, Christopher Plaisance on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and Roberto Bacci on Italian esotericism during the Fascist era. Also included are four book reviews, one of which has been authored by yours truly. Devoted to an Oxford University Press anthology brought out last year – Per Faxneld and Jesper Aa. Petersen's The Devil's Party: Satanism in Modernity – the book under review offers an exciting expansion into the burgeoning realms of Satanism studies. If you're interested in reading my review, check it out here, while the rest of the Correspondences edition is available freely here. Go give it a read!

Friday, 19 December 2014

An Interview with Dr. Philip A. Shaw

Today here at Albion Calling I am interviewing the philologist Dr. Philip A. Shaw, a Lecturer in Old English at the University of Leicester, who has a particular research interest in our evidence for Anglo-Saxon paganism and the conversion to Christianity. Having written a fascinating PhD thesis that completely alters the way in which we will look at the alleged Anglo-Saxon god Woden, he has since published a fantastic book exploring two alleged Anglo-Saxon goddesses, Eostre and Hretha. Here he gives us a unique insight into his career and publications which should be of interest to all those with a fascination for the cognitive world of Early Medieval England. 

EDW: You are currently Lecturer in English Language and Old English at the University of Leicester, having gained your BA from the University of Oxford and then your PhD from the University of Leeds in 2002. Can you tell us a little bit more about your academic trajectory, and the reasons why you decided to study Old English – and in particular Early Medieval religion – in the first place ?

PS: I can remember being taken to see a stage production of Beowulf as a child, and being given a copy of Julian Glover’s adaptation of the poem, which is still on my office shelves along with all the other translations and adaptations of the poem I have collected over the years. Glover intersperses snippets of the Old English text within his Present Day English rendering, and those snippets fascinated me. Hours spent poring over them yielded the barest glimmer of understanding. My research skills have, I hope, improved somewhat since then, but I suspect that my understanding remains glimmering at best. In my teens, I returned to the text armed with George Jack’s edition – a gift from David Norris, the English teacher who, of all my teachers at school (several of them excellent), had the most profound impact on me. Over a summer, I translated the whole poem. 

In retrospect, it therefore seems peculiar that I didn’t know when I arrived at Oxford that I was going to study the medieval curriculum known as Course II. But my memory is that I didn’t know. I enjoyed Old English classes in the first year and I read more widely in the literature and found that I felt somehow in tune with it. I remember feeling rather nervous when the time came to choose Course II and I had to declare that I was abandoning all modern literature in favour of a diet of Old English, Old Saxon and Gothic. My interest in the study of early medieval religious life developed in my second and third years. I had the pleasure of tutorials with Malcolm Godden at some point during that time, and I recall an essay on Ælfric’s ‘De falsis deis’ that went rather off track – more comparative religion than Old English literature was the verdict, and I have been stubbornly off track ever since. At Leeds I was also very lucky to have supervisors in Joyce Hill, Ian Wood and Mary Swan who helped and encouraged me to develop the approaches to the study of early medieval life and thought that continue to provide me with gainful employment and a great deal of pleasure.

EDW: Your doctoral thesis was titled “Uses of Wodan: The Development of his Cult and of Medieval Literary Responses to It”. Scrutinizing the surviving evidence that we have for Woden, an entity who has traditionally been seen by Early Medievalists as the primary god in the Anglo-Saxon pantheon, you put forward the fascinating argument that he might never have been an Anglo-Saxon deity at all, but a creation of later Christian literary tradition. In particular, you ingeniously challenge the preconception that Woden was cognate to the Scandinavian deity Óðinn, and in doing so you have really shaken the foundations of much previous scholarship on the subject, which has relied on transposing the mythological systems present in twelfth-century Iceland onto fifth to eighth-century England. What got you thinking along these lines to start with ? It is available online for anyone to access here, but I'd be interested to hear if you have got any plans to see it revised and published in book form ?

PS: My doctoral work began with a lot of scraping yielding meagre results. I embarked on a hunt for all the evidence for Woden/Wodan/Óðinn in the fond belief that there would be quite a lot of it, and that some more or less coherent picture would emerge. But the more I looked for him, the more elusive he seemed. Each time that I thought I had found a source that presented an unproblematic scrap of evidence for this pan-Germanic deity, I found that the source turned out to be problematic in all sorts of ways. I can’t remember when it dawned on me, but at some point I realised that if we look for a pan-Germanic deity, we tend to see one – but in fact the pieces of evidence I had assembled were various, messy and not necessarily from the same jigsaw. What many of the pieces did have in common was that they stemmed from literate, Christian traditions, and I think that the picture they provide may well be in large part a picture of how Christians imagined the non-Christian past and the non-Christian other. This is not, of course, to claim that these sources are simply fantasies; they reflect, I am sure, some knowledge of some aspects of non-Christian religious life, but they are a glass that has been substantially darkened by Christian (and, by extension, Classical) thought. In many ways, my doctoral work, and some of my subsequent work, has been the study of this glass itself. I have no plans at the moment to revise my thesis for publication, but if any academic publishers are reading this, I might be persuaded to do so!

EDW: In 2007, you published an important paper in the Early Medieval Europe journal titled “The Origins of the Theophoric Week in the Germanic Languages.” Based in part on one of the arguments presented in your doctorate, you critically examine how the linguistically Germanic societies of the Early Middle Ages adopted the seven day system that was already present in Southern Europe, and the manner in which they chose to name those days after pre-Christian deities. It's a pioneering piece of work, and that being the case I'd be interested in learning how exactly you first thought of and then developed this argument?

PS: In sifting through the evidence for Wodan, I developed a paranoid sense that the only certain evidence for this (or any other) Germanic deity was the name itself. The name, if nothing else, I reasoned, must have been coined by pre-Christian Germani. Of course, I was wrong; I wasn’t sufficiently paranoid. D. H. Green’s Language and History in the Early Germanic World (which is a brilliant book and one of my desert island reads) assured me that the Latin names for the days of the week were loan-translated into Germanic sometime in the late Roman period, probably in the context of trade. Here, then, was clear evidence for Wodan from as early as the fourth century AD, if not earlier. But something about this picture troubled me. I had been examining the late Roman votive inscriptions to deities with Germanic names or epithets that cluster around the Rhine frontier, and I noticed that they draw a number of parallels between Germanic deities and the Roman deities Mercury and Mars. The names of these two deities are related to the names of the days of the week in Latin; Mars gives Martis dies ‘day of Mars’ (corresponding to Tuesday; this develops into Mardi in French) and Mercury gives Mercurii dies ‘day of Mercury’ (corresponding to Wednesday; this develops into Mercredi in French). Although there are several different parallels drawn between a figure with a Germanic name and one or other of these Roman deities, not one of these parallels involves the name of any of the Germanic deities whose names feature in the names of the days of the week. In other words, we have direct evidence for the equivalences drawn between Germanic and Roman deities during the period and in the area in which Latin-Germanic contact was supposed to have led to the creation of the Germanic day-names containing names of deities. Yet this evidence points directly away from the equivalences that appear in the Germanic day-names. These equivalences are first attested in actual manuscripts from the early Middle Ages, where they reflect Anglo-Saxon engagement with classical texts. Based on these observations, I began to re-think the plausibility of the supposed fourth-century translation of the day-names into the Germanic languages. While we are unlikely ever to arrive at absolute certainty on how, when and why this act of translation took place, I think that there are good reasons to doubt the fourth century theory, and good reasons to suspect the hand of the Christian schoolroom in the development of the names for the days of the week that we still employ today.

EDW: One of your most recent publications, Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons (Bristol Classical Press, 2011), deals with many of the same themes as your doctoral work in that it undertakes a critical reassessment of our evidence for deities. Specifically, it looks at the eighth century written accounts of the monk Bede, who mentioned two pagan goddesses; Eostre and Hreda. The evidence for these preternatural entities have been studied by other scholars, most famously by Jacob Grimm, and led many to conclude that they probably didn't exist. However, by utilising the evidence from votive inscriptions you have actually put together a good case that this attitude is wrong, and that these goddesses really were the object of cultic devotion in Germanic Europe. Again, I'd like to ask how you came upon this pioneering argument, and whether you think that the further study of votive inscriptions can shine light on other purported gods from Early Medieval Europe ?

PS: As I mentioned earlier, I’d been interested in the late Roman votive inscriptions to deities with Germanic names and epithets for some time. I first came across them when working on my PhD, and I felt that they offered us an unusual insight into the potentially vast range of deities – especially goddesses – worshipped among Germanic-speaking groups. I had never thought of them in relation to Eostre and Hreda, however; my interest in these particular goddesses was prompted by research I was undertaking into time reckoning in Anglo-Saxon England, following on from my work on the days of the week. Making the connection between the votive inscriptions and Bede’s treatise on time reckoning De Temporum Ratione (‘On the Reckoning of Time’) was the key shift in thinking that allowed me to begin developing the arguments in the book. I think that these votive inscriptions still have a good deal more to offer us. For one thing, I think it would be worthwhile exploring the overlap between elements used in the divine names of these inscriptions and elements used in personal names and group names in the Germanic languages. This might help us to gain a better understanding of the ways in which gods and goddesses were integrated into the fabric of everyday life through people’s names.

EDW: You're currently working on a project examining linguistic variation in early Anglo-Saxon England, which sounds exciting to Anglo-Saxonists such as myself. But considering this blog is primarily devoted to the study of religion, I feel that I must ask if you if you have any projects on the horizon that explore paganism and the process of Christianisation ?

PS: I don’t have any major projects in this area in prospect at the moment. I am working on personal naming practices, and may therefore have more to say on personal names that contain divine names in the future. This has the potential to shed more light on paganism and Christianisation, but, as always, the material is difficult to work with and firm conclusions may be difficult to achieve. I am also planning to publish a little something on Old English month-names that explores local variation and the ways in which the year was divided according to religious and agricultural concerns.

EDW: In recent years, research into the belief systems of the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon peoples has been largely archaeological in focus, with only a handful of scholars, like yourself, Ian Wood, and Richard North, approaching it primarily from a text-based analysis. That being the case, I wondered where you saw the study of Anglo-Saxon paganism headed in the coming decades, with particular pertinence to the use of philology ?

PS: I find that the pleasure of research lies in the fact that it is a continual encounter with the unexpected. I hope that the study of Anglo-Saxon paganism in the coming decades will continue to take seriously the importance of philology for understanding the mental world of the Anglo-Saxons, but I don’t think I can predict how the research agenda will develop. One of the most rewarding things I do is teaching Old English to students on our degree programmes at the University of Leicester, and they also confront me with the unexpected, looking at things in new ways and prompting me to re-think things. In due course, I expect that some of them will go on to do PhDs and do research in this area. I don’t know what they will discover, or how my own work may develop in response to theirs, but I can only look forward to finding out where the field goes.

EDW: Thanks Philip for giving us a greater insight into your research - I wish you all the best in future.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

CFP for a Cambridge University Symposium: "The Alchemical Landscape: Counterculture, Occulture and the Geographic Turn"

Here's another call for papers that has been doing the rounds, this time for an upcoming symposium to be held at Cambridge University.

The Alchemical Landscape: Counterculture, Occulture and the Geographic Turn”

Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge, 23rd March 2015. An interdisciplinary symposium presented by the Cambridge University Counterculture Research Group

"If any one book put ley lines on the map, re-enchanted the British landscape and made Glastonbury the capital of the New Age it was John Michell's seminal 1969 tome The View Over Atlantis." ---Bob Rickard, Fortean Times, 2009.

In an age of vast ecological crisis and a widespread re-calibration of the arts and humanities towards questions of eco-criticism, an increasing number of writers, artists and film-makers are re-investing the British landscape with esoteric and mythic imagery. From the revival of 'Folk Horror' to the cross-over between magical and artistic practice, this 'enchanted' representation of the rural works as both a link to the past and an articulation of pressing contemporary concerns.

This special one-day symposium at the University of Cambridge seeks to explore the creative, aesthetic and political implications of this 'geographic turn'. 300-word proposals for presentations of up to 20 minutes are invited on any aspect of this theme. Possible topics could include but are not limited to:

300-word proposals for presentations of up to 20 minutes are invited on any aspect of this theme.

Possible topics could include but are not limited to:

* John Michell, T.C. Lethbridge, J.A Baker, T.H. White, Helen Macdonald, Paul Devereux, Andrew Collins, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Alan Moore, Derek Jarman, Penny Slinger, Arthur Machen, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Dennis Parry, Sven Berlin, Geraldine Monk, Michael Bracewell, Gary Spencer Millidge, Alice Oswald, David Pinner, Diana Durham, Charlotte Hussey, Brian Catling, Janni Howker.

* English Heretic, Ghost Box, Drew Mulholland, Julian Cope, The Outer Church, Pye Corner Audio, Matt Shaw, The Sinister Insult, Phil Legard, The Geography Trip, The Wyrding Module, The Haunted Shoreline, The House in the Woods, Wyrd England Gazetteer, The Soulless Party, A Year in the Country, Wyrdstone, Scarfolk, The Old Weird Albion, The Sons of T.C. Lethbridge, Psychic Field Recordings.

* The Stone Tape, Children of the Stones, Quatermass and the Pit, A Field in England, The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan's Claw, Antichrist, Voodoo Science Park, Robinson in Ruins, On Vanishing Land, Cobra Mist, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, The Owl Service, Robin Redbreast, Penda's Fen.

* Mystical, visionary and imaginative landscapes, folklore, hauntology, alternative nostalgia, psychogeography, speculative archaeology, inner space, psychedelic pastoralism, the contemporary bucolic.

* The creative potential of magical thinking, Fortean phenomena and parapsychological practices: crop circles, dowsing, residual haunting, remote viewing, geomancy.

Proposals can be e-mailed to: Deadline: 5th January 2015. Please include a short biographical note with your submission. 

Yvonne Salmon FRSA FRGS FRAI
Preceptor, Corpus Christi College
Lecturer, University of Cambridge

James Riley FRSA
Fellow of English
Corpus Christi College
University of Cambridge

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Call for Papers: "Female Leaders in New Religious Movements"

University of Gothenburg doctoral student Chris Giuduce has asked me to pass along this call for papers for a new academic anthology which he is putting together on the subject of Female Leaders in New Religious Movements.

"Submissions are invited which examine the under-researched theme of female leadership in New Religious Movements. While research on male leaders of New Religious Movements has been effectively covered by scholarly debate, as in in the case of the so-called Big 5 Movements (Branch Davidians, People’s Temple, Aum Shirinkyo, Solar Temple and the final years of Heaven’s Gate), the latter studies have suffered from an unbalanced approach to gender issues. The present volume seeks to address this shortcoming by studying female leaders in NRMs and the structures of power that regulate these movements. Female Leaders in New Religious Movements” will address this lacuna by including essays covering the many complex aspects of gender and power within NRMs. A series editor at Palgrave-Macmillan has expressed strong interest in this project. Subjects could include, but are not limited to:
  • Comparative approaches to male/female leadership within the same movement
  • Non-binary gendered/ queer leadership in contemporary (neo-pagan) movements
  • Female leadership in contemporary occult orders
  • Asian movements female leaders/ founders
  • Christian movements female leaders/ founders
Essays are invited from scholars in the disciplines of new religious movements, Western esotericism religious studies, psychology of religions, and related disciplines. Proposals should take the form of a 250-word (approximately) abstract, a provisional title, and a short contributor biography (50-100 words). All proposals must be received via email by January 31, 2015. The word count of essays accepted for inclusion in the collection should be between 6000 and 7000 words, endnotes included. Please send all proposals and questions to the editors, Inga Bårdsen Tøllefsen ( and Christian Giudice ("