Saturday 1 December 2012

An Interview with Dr. Dave Evans

Today, I talk to Dr. Dave Evans, an independent academic who has made an interesting contribution to the study of British occultism in the latter half of the twentieth century. The author of both Aleister Crowley and the 20th Century Synthesis of Magic (2001) and The History of British Magick After Crowley (2007), he was also the co-editor of Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon (2009) and has published articles in a wide range of outlets, both academic and popular, over the past decade or so. Furthermore, he was the mastermind behind both the Journal for the Academic Study of Magic and the Academic Study of Magic list-serve, both of which have been of real help in bringing academics interested in the study of Western esotericism, witchcraft, and other allied areas together in constructive dialogue. I ask him what life is like as both an academic historian and an “insider” to the world of occultism, and talk Ronald Hutton, Kenneth Grant, and the future of academic research in this area.

[EDW] In your academic publications, you are very open about being a practitioner of ceremonial magic; when did you first become involved in occultism and what would you describe as your own particular approach to the occult?

[DE] Hell, that’s a huge opening question. I had some weird experiences as a child, something I later found was a pretty common motif in various cultures. From the age of seven through to nine I was ill with about eight different consecutive diseases, and I spent some of that period pretty much “out of the game.” I don't recall much of that time (I have no recollection of my seventh birthday for instance), but in retrospect I think the larger part of me was ‘outside,’ looking in, consorting with spirits or however you want to define/describe it. I was attracted to all things Ancient Egyptian from an early age, and being taken to see the touring Tutankhamun exhibition in London in the early 1970s made a great impression on me, as did seeing the first TV pictures of man landing on the moon.

In my teens I started to explore practical magical things, and spent possibly too many years practicing ‘traditional’ ceremonial magic, the kind of things you find in Solomonic grimoires and suchlike. Fascinating stuff, which led me into [Aleister] Crowley, and then into what is loosely called chaos magic, which is a terrible name for something that is huge, often very elegant and so diverse as to defy simple definition (which is one of the attractions). Now (and for quite a few years) my approach is ‘anything goes’ and ‘see what works,’ be that a formal invocation with all the robes and swords, or spraying an impromptu sigil on the pavement with mayonnaise. Some of that approach is described in the various Francis Breakspear books of practical magic.

[EDW] At some point you decided to move into academia, receiving a BA, an MA, and then a PhD at the University of Bristol in 2006. What made you decide to explore the history of Western esotericism in an academic capacity, and what was your experience in doing so? I can bet that there were some naysayers in both the esoteric and academic communities who weren’t that receptive to what you were trying to do?

[DE] Another super question. I did the fairly conventional life-path in some respects, left school, worked, partnered up with someone, split up with someone, and in the early 90s I was unemployed and single... I was already writing stuff (which was published much later) and I rediscovered a thirst for finding academic stuff out. I took a couple of short college courses, and in those days it was a lot cheaper to go to University than it is now, so at 34 years old I started a BSc degree in psychology (a rational science subject being perhaps a weird choice for a magicko, but my early career was in Medical Sciences, so it was slightly comfortable from that angle). That opened some doors, I did a Masters in History (with a funding award), and while doing that I was introduced to Ronald Hutton at a conference, and eventually was interviewed for a PhD place under him, some scholarship money was secured (to my immense gratitude) and I started work on that in late 2001.

If there were only mere naysayers that would have been fine, but there was some active and pretty vile abuse and dissent from both camps. At that time Ronald was already a hugely influential historian, but he wasn’t as big (and contested) a name as he is now. Being his student opened some doors for me, but as his Triumph of the Moon had not long been published (a couple of years) it also ensured some doors were firmly slammed in my face. Triumph, and some of the work of other academics, got a rough reception from the more fragile end of esotericism, from the kind of people who believe something historical is true just because their magical group leader tells them it is, and they tend to have loud voices when this flimsy view is threatened. Some academics didn’t like it either; one noted Prof told me that they did not consider the subject (the history of esotericism) to be worthy of any academic time or effort, as they turned their back on me and walked away. My reply to that was not phrased academically, it was a lot more brief; I will never win any medals for tact... I had better not name names, those debates are old hat now, and it is less interesting than your other questions, so I will move on : ) Also, I should say that a lot of people were wonderfully kind, which I discuss below, it wasn’t all doom and gloom by any means, for every asshole there was at least one angel…

[EDW] What was it like to undertake your doctoral research under Ronald Hutton, one of Britain’s foremost living historians? In my experience, I’ve always found him very friendly. Clearly, he inspired you enough to produce Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon (2009), a festschrift of sorts in honour of his historical study of Wicca, The Triumph of the Moon (1999).

[DE] *laughs* A quite astonishing experience, and one that I will treasure forever. One of Britain’s foremost historians ever, living or dead I would say. Someone would have to do a heck of a lot to top Ronald’s achievements. Having a conversation with Ronald is a delight, and I had him to myself every 3 weeks or so, for a precious half an hour, for almost 3 years. I am a very lucky person. He is indeed a very friendly man, but no pushover when you work for him – he is a superb adviser on academic work; firm but fair, and he will not allow crap work to get through the filters – he steered, cajoled, encouraged and generally supported some very difficult stuff I was doing, at the same time as managing his perpetually massive workload in other areas. It was daunting as hell, too – having read his stuff I was continually wondering how I was ever going to do anything to impress him. I think I managed that once or twice. I finished the PhD in late 2004, and with a bit of rewrite after it was assessed by the external examiners I got the actual certificate on Valentine’s Day in 2006, which was cute timing, and I got to wear graduation robes of scarlet and imperial purple, which made me feel like the Pope for a day. I remain in touch with Ronald, and am one of the growing band of people whom he has officially or unofficially mentored in academic things, and I am friends with many of his past and current students – we are in some ways a loosely affiliated tribe, and there is a lot of mutual support between us all, maybe a bit like the Masons, but far less secretive!

Ten Years of Triumph, a book I conceived and edited a few years back, was my ‘love letter to the universe,’ to steal a phrase from somewhere; it was my way of getting some great people (like Sabina Magliocco, Amy Hale, Geoff Samuels etc) together from all parts of the world to metaphorically wave a lot of coloured flags that semaphored a very big message of how much appreciation, admiration, awe, respect and, yes, how much real love there is for Ronald from many quarters of the academic and Pagan world. A lot of these bookish tribute things about various people are produced in academia when someone retires, or when someone dies, but I felt it important that we said our piece then, and the tenth birthday of Triumph of the Moon was a great milestone. Ronald was, of course, generous and charming about our little project, giving it some of his valuable time when he was extra busy, and he kindly made an evening to come along to the very low key book launch in a Bristol pub, which was a memorable night for all who attended.

[EDW] Your research brought you into contact with some of the seminal figures of late twentieth-century British occultism, including several individuals who are sadly no longer with us, like Kenneth Grant of the Typhonian Order and Andrew Chumbley of the Cultus Sabbati. How did you feel about interacting with these “big names” of the occult community, with the accompanying - and sometimes intimidating - mythologies that have built up around them?

[DE] Yup, it is an inbuilt benefit of doing modern history rather than delving into the 17th century etc, that many key witnesses are still alive, and I had contact with a lot of the names, who, for the most part were supremely generous with their time and very kind of spirit (for example Ramsey Dukes, without whom I don’t think I could have done anything like the research I did) and in some cases when it was in-person meetings their generosity extended to letting me have time with their private book collections. Some of them became, and remain, dear friends, for which I consider myself hugely privileged. Andrew was very helpful indeed, in ways that I was not able to discuss in a purely academic way in the thesis, and it was gutting when he suddenly died. If he had lived and completed his PhD, hell, he would have been something else... And dear Mr Grant... wow. I had been a fan for years, and getting a letter back from him at all was breathtaking... and the content was even better than that. He lived to a ripe old age, and I am told he read parts of my book and quite enjoyed it. Yes, there is a hugely intimidating mythos around many of those people, and I tried NOT to be ‘swooning fanboy’ in these kind of circumstances, but it didn’t always happen like that!

It is also very difficult when historical research starts to unpick and in some cases undermine a lore that surrounds a big name, and I got some pretty hateful stuff by email from a few Grant fans who didn’t like me pointing out some historical problems with his tales, even though I made it abundantly clear that while pure academic work on him showed some logic problems, as a magician I had the ultimate respect for him. Unlike Amado Crowley, who I pretty much dismantled in every way possible, his claims were a dreadful case of fairytales (in a bad way) - which was a shame, I really *wanted* Aleister to have left a living vessel behind, with some massive magickal power. Maybe he did, but it was not Amado, and all the email abuse and threats from his students doesn’t change that... As I said, for every asshole there were angels, and now that the fictional character known as Amado has “died” the abusive emails have stopped.

[EDW] Both during and following the completion of your doctorate, you brought out published versions of your masters and doctoral dissertations in the form of Aleister Crowley and the 20th Century Synthesis of Magick (2001) and The History of British Magick After Crowley (2007). The latter received at least two reviews in peer-reviewed academic journals and many more on Pagan and occult blogs and websites, which were overwhelmingly positive, but at least one academic voice still seemed a little uneasy regarding your status as an “insider” to the very movement you were studying. How did you feel about those reviews and the reception to your books more generally?

[DE] The publication was entirely due to the effort and vision of Katherine, my stalwart publisher [at Hidden Publishing], otherwise we would not be having this conversation now. To be honest I was glad of any review, as I had no idea what kind of, or level of audience I would ever get. The printed academic reviews took *years* to come out in some cases, which is the way the industry works, sadly. The insider-outsider status is a debate I myself still have problems with, so it should not be surprising that others do too! On the one hand people may think that you cannot understand a phenomenon completely unless you have been inside it, and on the other... well there is a problem of academic detachment and suchlike, potentially. I do not consider myself to be an apologist for, or a puppet of anyone (which has been suggested in some quarters). And even if I was a puppet, what purpose would it serve? it certainly wasn't for money; book sales in esoteric areas do not make people rich, I knew that right at the start...

The inside-outside argument can maybe be summed up in a metaphor: some writers think that to be a good clinical psychologist you need to have suffered from a mental illness, to give you more insight to the conditions you will treat. Maybe. But I do not know of any veterinarians who insist that you have to have been a dog in order to be a better vet. A simplistic answer, but right now I don’t have a better one, because I don’t think there is an answer, once you have been an insider (in anything) you cannot then be an outsider, so it is impossible to compare like-for-like, and both perspectives have relevance.

I am glad that anyone reads the stuff and then has anything intelligent to say about it. Those “reviewers” who have personal axes to grind are pretty transparent in any case, so I hope that readers of the duff reviews (for example on Amazon) can spot the difference, and there is a quite hysterically deranged and venomous “review” of Ten Years of Triumph online that came out within an hour or two of the book being published, and was obviously agenda-based, rather than about our content... Ah well.

Two of the early reviews of the book-cum-PhD [The History of British Magick After Crowley] pleased me hugely as they showed the reviewer had really READ the book (whereas some of the more flagrant, but content-lite carping reviewers even got my name wrong, and that’s on the front cover, doh) - one said it was a sensible book about a freaky subject (a paraphrase); which is a succinct and quite perfect comment. The other one was from chaos magic founder Peter Carroll, who said he hoped it would be a reference work for years to come, which was, I’m not ashamed to admit, another fanboy swoon moment. I’ve subsequently met and had lunch with Peter and thanked him for that. Andy Roberts gave it a stunning review in Fortean Times, and he also changed the unwieldy title into a great acronym, which we had not spotted during production: THOBMAC, for which I was grateful : )

[EDW] You were also the mastermind behind the Journal for the Academic Study of Magic (JSM), a peer-reviewed academic journal which ran for five volumes from 2002 to 2010. Could you tell us a little more about how that came about, and the scenario that led to its ultimate conclusion?

[DE] No! I was CO-mastermind, my fellow PhD student (now Dr) Alison Butler was also hugely involved in that (check out her great book on the Golden Dawn by the way) and I remind people of that at every opportunity; if there is any glory to be had, she gets half. It was our joint idea and we both did a lot of work on it. It all came about one sunny June day in Bristol, in a cafe that is now long closed. Too much coffee prompted a lot of hapless moaning that getting academic journal articles on magic published was very hard (the fabulous journal The Pomegranate was at that stage in a long hiatus) and so after several more large coffees it became obvious that we could moan about it for years more, or we could do something about it. I mean, how hard could it be to set up a new journal? Hah.

If we had known... I think we might still have done it... A long story, but in brief, we found a couple of willing and relevant Doctors (a journal needs a qualified review board) and we sent out an online invitation to send in articles. A flood of pieces arrived, some amazing, some amazingly mad. During this process, Mogg Morgan [proprietor of Mandrake of Oxford publishing], who I had email contact with about magical research, but had never met, offered to publish the journal. Bingo. From caffeine injected idea to finished printed product on shop shelves was just over nine months, which was actually impossible according to anyone in the industry, but we didn't know that at the time. We were very lucky to have Mogg’s skill and reputation behind us, and his customer base... without that I think we would have launched independently and maybe sold five copies. Ever. These were heady days, we had a lot of support from Ronald, and we were able to run a launch conference at Bristol Uni, with subsidies from the Institute of Historical Research, and people still talk about that event, it was fabulous, we had academics and magicians on the same stage, talking to each other about common ground. Wow. Apparently it was not a regular thing then. The journal grew and gathered both strength and additional editorial board members, including some Professors, but without an academic home it was costly to run, I put a lot of my own money into the admin and website, and a LOT of my time.

When my PhD was finished I had to find work to eat, and so I slowly started to devolve the JSM work to other academics, all of whom were very busy, and over a couple of years and a couple of issues the head of steam went down, and the gaps between editions became longer. While the JSM was very important to all of us, to wider academia it was not, it was a zero-scoring journal in terms of university reputation; it was not a headline-grabber, or anywhere that would generate funding for a research project (which is how universities run nowadays) and other work priorities beset the main editorial board. It all went quiet for about two years, and after a lot of prompting from me, I finally forced the editors to make a decision on the future. It was re-start or kill the title, as far as I was concerned. What actually happened, after much debate, was that the journal was taken over by some American postgraduates, but they took a long time deciding to rebrand and refocus it. Their journal is called Preternature, and I hear good things about it. The JSM is now like a fly embedded in amber, preserved and intact, and I am still very proud of all that I and the other hard-working members achieved with it, and in some ways it is satisfying that none of us made a penny out of it, it was done purely for love of the subject.

[EDW] Another of your creations was the Academic Study of Magic list-serve that operates online, filling a much-needed niche among scholars operating in this field. You no longer act as moderator, but I think many would be interested in your perspective on how it all came about, and the direction that it has taken.

[DE] That was a natural progression and a sensible step. As papers for submissions to the JSM came in, there was a dialogue with the editors and the writers, and it became obvious that there was a vacuum; nowhere for like-minded folk to talk about this stuff. many academics who write about magical things are working in ‘normal’ fields, for example in one of the JSMs we had a great piece on Lovecraftian themes, written by a Doctor of Marine Biology. Nothing to do with his day job, but a super piece nonetheless. We set up the e-list, and apart from a (very few) flame wars it has been around for a decade now, and when I last looked had over 400 members, from (I think) 17 academic disciplines, and a lot of magical practitioners. I haven’t been a moderator there for years, for the same reason as the JSM editorship, it is time-consuming, and I have enough trouble earning a living in a full week. I have huge respect for the people who do moderate the list, such as Dr Dave Green, as it is done with a very light but careful touch and allows for spirited debate, which is healthy. A very few times it got unhealthy, and that happened a while back, with a lot of offline abuse directed at me from a few correspondents, so I have been out of the list for most of 2012, as starving those correspondents of oxygen seemed to be the best way to shut them up.

[EDW] You have a couple of new publications coming out very soon; would you care to elaborate a little more about your involvement with them? Are there any other projects on the horizon?

[DE] Out already! Earlier this year I had an edited book out, The Enduring Problems with Prophecy: From Early-Modern Times to 2012 and Beyond, which you can buy at any time, it will remain completely relevant after the world fails to end in a week or two! And it has some great pieces, from established stars like Julian Vayne and Ramsey Dukes, and some new writers who are going to be massive, like Al Cummins. I have a chapter in the just-published volume edited by Nevill Drury on Concrescent, Pathways in Modern Western Magic, which is a HUGE book, but filled with fabulous writers, both academic and magical (so, a tad like the JSM in style). The publisher, Sam Webster, is a current student with Ronald Hutton, so it is a nice closing of a circle there.

Future projects depend on both of (a) the western world economic slump eventually levelling out so that someone actually both wants to and has the spare money to buy a book again, and (b) my having the time in between earning a crust. For the last 12 months I have been chancing my arm overseas teaching English, often for tiny sums of money in far-flung countries, as I could find no work at all in the UK, and so after a period of being a “doctor on the dole” I sold everything that I owned and left the country. This was based on a terrifying statistic that if you are in the UK, aged 50 and unemployed, there is presently a 50% chance that you will not work again. Not for me, so I got out while unemployed at 49 ½ and took the risk, working in places with no welfare safety net etc.

Having the leisure time to write books in those circumstances is tricky, but there is a part-finished magical practice book that *could* be completed in 2013 sometime... I was hoping it would be by the end of 2012 but this last job I’ve been in has been very demanding of extra working hours, so it’s a common theme, delays and day job taking precedence. A practical magic book that takes X hours to write makes a little money, an academic book that takes 4X hours to write will make about the same sum of money, so I have to look at the efficiencies of time. A lot of my scholarly projects have been put on permanent hold for the last 2-3 years due to all of this, including a book on the History and Social Function of Fraud, which I would love to finish researching and writing, but not as an unsupported researcher, it needs a university base.

[EDW] And, on a final note, as someone who has been a practitioner-scholar of the subject for many years, where do you see the future of academic research into Western esotericism in ten years time, or even fifty?

[DE] Magical experimentation and research is very healthy, there are some great, diverse, imaginative things being done out in the field. It is difficult not to be enormously cynical about academic research however. That answer is linked to the economic slump. British university study in Humanities (history etc) has been mashed by this apology for a government that we have now, and the damage they have wrought will take a decade or more to fix WHEN they are voted out. If indeed it can be fixed. I am only one of hundreds of researchers who have been trained by the uni system and then simply let go when some out of touch millionaire minister didn’t like a few sums and laid waste to a massively important system of education in the UK. That timescale (election date plus a decade [EDW: which will be 2025]) – which is an optimistic estimate by the way, precludes me from further involvement in a work role (if I ever get a job back in Britain, which is doubtful) as I will be retired or dead by then!

If it is fixed well enough and in time, then some amazing things can happen, but it depends on a new and fresh young crop of trained researchers, and if the lights go out completely in history departments due to funding issues, then it may not be possible to ever start from a stationary point and bring that skill base back up to speed, with a new cohort of minds to do the research work. That is the very depressing view. On the lighter side, freelance researchers abound (I would never call them amateur, as that has a connotation of not good enough, which is untrue), and with stringent academic techniques (which you can learn outside of a university, for sure) it may stay alive, and possibly thrive, but if it stays outside of academia we go backwards in time, in terms of academic respect for the subject.

In fifty? I will be long dead for sure by then, and I hope the slump is over by then, that we are teaching history again and that some keen young things are using Ronald’s books, my books and those of many others as a springboard to piece together what the magickos of a hundred years before were doing, and what they were thinking... Whatever the Internet is in 50 years’ time, I am sure they will be using it extensively, and that they will find this page on some archive site, so I will close here by blowing them a kiss for their efforts, and wishing them the happy discovery of amazing things :). Thank you Ethan, this was a lot of fun.


  1. A great pleasure, this interview, thanks.

    1. It is good to hear that people have enjoyed it. I hope to follow it up with other interviews of academics specialising in the fields of magic, ritual, and esotericism, so hopefully many of those will also be of interest to you, and to others.

  2. Dr Evans has just requested that I post the following in response to some messages which he has received:

    "Just to clarify - When I talked about psychologists, their patients and vets and dogs I was not, as one email correspondent half-jokingly suggested, implying that some academics regard pagans as mental cases, and some regard them as dogs. Just a metaphorical way to explain what I was trying to say : )"

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.