Saturday, 12 September 2015

Reflections on the "Generation Hex: The Politics of Contemporary Paganism" conference

Several days ago, on Thursday 10th September, an academic workshop titled “Generation Hex – The Politics of Contemporary Paganism” was held at Cambridge University’s Division of Social Anthropology. Co-organised by Jonathan Woolley, a doctoral student at Cambridge, Kavita Maya, a doctoral student at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies, and Elizabeth Cruse of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the event brought together both scholars of contemporary Pagan studies (some of whom are also practicing Pagans themselves) as well as Pagans outside of the academy who nevertheless have an interest in the manner in which their new religious movement is being explored by scholars. To my knowledge, this was the first academic conference devoted exclusively to contemporary Paganism that had been held in the United Kingdom for at least five years, which in itself made this a particularly important event – with that in mind, here I want to provide a brief overview of the event for those around the world who were unfortunately unable to attend.

Session One, “The Pagan Body Politic?” was chaired by prominent British folklorist Marion Bowman of the Open University, and kicked off with “Anti-Secularism in Contemporary Paganism”, authored by William Rathouse but read in absentia by Woolley. Noting that the mainstream British Pagan movement rarely exhibits what Rathouse termed the “totalitarian” and “absolutist” tendencies of certain other religious movements, their paper proceeded to look at a number of cases in which the Pagan and archaeological establishment have come to conflict. Next up was Jennifer Uzzell, a doctoral candidate at Durham University, with “Walking the Crow Road: An Investigation into the Emerging Funeral Tradition in Contemporary Paganism in the UK”, in which she brought her own experience as a funeral home director to bear on a discussion of this fascinating subject. The third and final paper of this section was provided by Samantha Griffin, a doctoral candidate at Keele University, who discussed “What might Medical Ethics learn from and share with Pagans? Care, Respect and the Embodied, Enmeshed Person” from her own perspective as both a medical ethicist and a Pagan. This was then followed by a breakout discussion in which the attendees (of whom there were about twenty) divided into three groups to discuss some of these issues in further detail.

After lunch, session two – “Pagans and Identity Beyond Blood and Soil?” – began, chaired by Open University Professor Graham Harvey (who was interviewed here back in February 2014). First up was Cambridge doctoral student Mikkel Kenni Bruun with a paper titled “‘Politics has no place in Wicca’ – the Space of the Non-Political in the Politics of Contemporary Paganism”. Based on his ethnographic work within Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccan movements in both Britain and Scandinavia, he highlighted how practitioners often insisted that their religion was “non-political” despite the fact that it often has an impact on “body politics”, the “politics of gender”, the “politics of sexuality” etc. In doing so he raised the important point that there is a very different understanding and comprehension of what exactly “politics” is: for some, it is something that revolves solely around the issues of governance, while for others it is instead  – as the post-1960s academic trend has often held – something that imbues all aspects of life. Although this conference was devoted to contemporary Paganism, Nick Mayhew-Smithconsultant on the television series Britain’s Holiest Places and a doctoral candidate at the University of Roehampton – then took us back to the Early Middle Ages with his discussion on the use of pre-Christian, “pagan” cultic sites by the early British Christians (while Mayhew-Smith’s work was undoubtedly interesting, those familiar with my academic work will know of the critical attitude that I take to the conflation of pre-Christian belief systems with modern Pagan religious movements, as if they were part of the same phenomenon, and thus in truth I wasnt really sure whether this paper fitted into this particular conference).  I then followed with my paper on “Northern Gods for Northern Folk: The Presentation of Folkish Ideologies in Contemporary British Heathenry”, in which I looked at the manner in which British Odinist and Wodenist have groups articulated a political program while at the same time professing their own apolitical nature – an interesting similarity with the approach adopted by the Wiccans encountered by Bruun. As with the previous session, a period of discussion followed, although this time the attendees remained as a collective entity rather than breaking up into smaller groups. 

The keynote lecture was then presented by theologian and religious studies scholar Melissa Raphael of the University of Gloucestershire. Titled “Thealogy and Idonoclasm: Second Wave Goddess Feminism and the Patriarchal Ideology of Feminity”, in this forty-minute talk Raphael provided us with an overview of the Pagan Goddess Movement and the manner in which it sought to embrace a female-oriented theology (“theology”) to help overcome the problems faced by women in modern society, thus bringing its adherents into intellectual conflict with those feminist theologians who sought to remain within the Judeo-Christian tradition. The whole event was then rounded off by Cruse’s closing remarks, after which – in both academic and Pagan fashion – participants descended to a nearby pub.

As I stated above, a key component of this event’s importance lay in the simple fact that is brought together an array of scholars of Pagan studies into the same room, something that far too rarely happens in Britain. However, the fact that it sought to focus on the interplay between contemporary Paganism and “politics” (however defined) was also of great importance, as this is a subject that has not been significantly explored by academics in the past. That the organisers were able to bring together speakers on quite a range of subjects, from medical ethics to socio-political visions of the future, also added to the success of the movement, as did the fact that the papers presented also covered a variety of different Pagan religions, from Odinism to the Goddess Movement, thus helping to escape the Wicca-centric attitude that has dominated some previous events and publications. It is my hope that "Generation Hex" will inspire similar such workshops and conferences in the near future, and thus for their achievements I must offer my thanks to Kavita, Jonathan, and Elizabeth for making this event a reality. 

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