Tuesday 12 November 2013

An Interview with Dr. Egil Asprem

Today here at Albion Calling I am interviewing one of the rising stars at the forefront of the academic study of Western esotericism, Dr. Egil Asprem. Currently Associate Professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, he has a PhD from the University of Amsterdam and has published on a wide variety of subjects, including his own monograph, an edited anthology, and a selection of articles in peer-reviewed journals including Aries, The Pomegranate, and Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft. Many readers will probably be aware of him as the man behind the Heterodoxology blog (follow it here) or as the co-founder of the Contemporary Esotericism Research Network (ContERN) which recently held its first conference at Stockholm University. We discuss the long path that he took to get where he is, his various projects, and the current and future state of academic studies into Western esotericism.

[EDW] You are currently Associate Professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, having recently received your PhD from the University of Amsterdam’s Center for the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents. Can you tell us a bit about your academic trajectory and how you reached where you are today?

[EA] It’s been a pretty straight trajectory from when I first set foot in a university about ten years ago. I did a double BA in religious studies and philosophy at NTNU in Trondheim, where I’m currently filling a vacancy this autumn. Funnily enough, the religious studies and philosophy departments were merged on the very same day I came back, so it’s been a sort of double home-coming. In 2006 I went to Amsterdam for the MA program on Western esotericism, and was lucky enough to win a “TopTalent” scholarship with the Dutch science foundation (NWO) to continue on to a PhD. I ended up staying at the Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents for a total of seven years. Through most of this time  –– starting already in my BA  –– I’ve been busy trying to turn as much as possible of what I’ve been working on into publishable material. I think this has turned out to be a very rewarding strategy, for getting involved with new projects, succeeding with applications, and things like that.

[EDW] What is it that made you want to become a professional academic, and in particular what attracted you to the history of religion, history of science, and the history of Western esotericism, the three fields within which your work largely fits?

Well that’s a fun exercise, backtracking one’s decisions and aspirations. I didn’t really plan on becoming a “professional academic,” but once you’ve truly entered that world, there’s no real alternative anymore. If you want to continue doing research, the academic route is an obvious choice. But the field was maybe not so obvious all along. I seriously considered switching to archaeology and taking more languages during my undergrad, so I suppose my trajectory could easily have turned in different directions. I did have an interest in what I now know as “esotericism” from before entering university, though, and it was that interest that initially brought me into religious studies. At the same time I’ve been nerding on pop-science since early childhood, and virtually all my philosophy papers went into epistemology and the philosophy of science somehow. So there has been a certain tendency from the beginning, that continues into my most recent work.

[EDW] Something that I always find interesting is to discover where a scholars’ own fascination with their subject actually comes from, and that being the case I’d like to ask you where you first developed your interest in Western esotericism?

[EA] I think it came from several sources that conspired to nod me towards this unusual field. But one important source was no doubt role-playing games [RPGs]. We played lots of stuff, but the “World of Darkness”-series from White Wolf was the most influential.  I remember doing a lot of research into the history of esotericism as a storyteller for games such as Mage: The Ascension and Vampire: The Dark Ages –– probably a lot more work on this than on my homework. In the late teens I started reading up on several different avenues of Western esotericism, and mostly ancient stuff. The Nag Hammadi library, the New Testament apocrypha, the Hermetica –– a lot of that was being released in Norwegian translations at the time. I also ended up reading a lot of cheap second-hand Rudolf Steiner books for some reason. Then there was the inevitable discovery of the [Hermetic Order of the] Golden Dawn and everything that comes with that. I was familiar with a good chunk of relevant literature before entering university and making an academic study out of these things, but I hadn’t been primed by any family involvement or even friends with esoteric interests. I was pretty much on my own in pursuing this beyond popular culture and RPGs, and it was all pretty eclectic.

[EDW] Do you situate yourself as an etic outsider to the field that you study, or do you instead possess the emic perspective of an insider?

[EA] Well to begin with I would distinguish the emic/etic distinction from the insider/outsider distinction. As far as I’m concerned, those point to separate issues that are too often being confounded, causing some muddled discussions. I’ve not been a proper “insider” of everything that I’ve studied – indeed that would’ve been difficult seeing that it spans from kabbalah to parapsychology to right-wing extremism to ritual magic to transhumanism. Being an insider to all of that I’d be a mightily confused individual. But as any good scholar should do, I always attempt to get as good a grasp of “emic” terms and meanings as possible when I write about a specific group. That’s a question of good methodology. But I do believe that remaining there, on the emic level, is a rather pointless exercise – not to mention an impossible task, if we’re going to be very strict about it. The aim in the end must be to do something academically useful and theoretically interesting with the material, and that eventually requires “translating” to, and analysing through, “etic” terminology. But let’s not forget that, in practice, etic is acad-emic.

[EDW] Your PhD thesis was on “The Problem of Disenchantment: Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse, 1900-1939,” in which you undertook a critical exploration of Max Weber’s famous claims regarding “the disenchantment of the world.” Could you tell us a little about this particular project, and are there any plans to publish this research?

[EA] I was afraid you'd ask that. The dissertation turned into a monstrous 600+ pages, covering very diverse material. The key objective as you said was to bring a fresh perspective on the notion of “disenchantment.” Essentially, what I am proposing is that we abandon the notion of “the disenchantment of the world” as an unfolding socio-historical “process,” bulldozing its way through Western (?) history, and instead conceptualize disenchantment as a chiefly intellectual “problem,” that has been experienced by certain people under certain historical conditions and met by a number of different solutions. I argue that this opens up a broad field of inquiry that connects the history of science, religion, philosophy, and esotericism, along the lines of a “problem-history,” or Problemgeschichte. A key idea here is that analogous problems are confronted synchronously across different cultural fields, and one has to broaden the disciplinary perspective to deal with this. That’s why the dissertation ended up being so long, of course...

I signed a book contract for it in the spring. Making the required revisions have taken time, though, but hopefully it will appear in print by next summer.

[EDW] Back in 2012, SUNY Press published your first book, Arguing with Angels: Enochian Magic and Modern Occulture. Could you tell us about this particular project and how it came to fruition? Is the subject of Dr. John Dee and the Enochian system of angelic magic which he pioneered something that you would like to return to in your research?

[EA] This is an example of an interest I’d had since my late teens, when I first came across the enochian material, collected all information I could find and lurked on various obscure web forums and e-lists. When I started my MA in Amsterdam, I finally had the time to “get to the bottom” of what this was all about. Arguing with Angels is a product of that work. While the book was published in 2012, most of the research was completed already by 2008, so for me this is pretty ancient work by now. There is a chance I will revisit Dr. Dee and his associates at some point, but it’s likely to be for different reasons than the history of enochian angel magic. For instance, I didn’t get to do satisfactory work on [Edward] Kelly and the other scryers last time. I’m much more interested in this formative dimension now.

[EDW] This year, Equinox Publishing is bringing out an edited volume overseen by yourself and Dr. Kennet Granholm. Titled Contemporary Esotericism, it contains contributions from a wide range of scholars active in the field, among them big names like Wouter Hanegraaff and Christopher Partridge. How did this particular project get going?

[EA] Kennet and I started jotting down plans on this project in a bar in Amsterdam on the very night that we returned from the second biannual ESSWE conference, in Strasbourg, in 2009. We both felt that contemporary esotericism was insufficiently studied thus far. Some experiences at the Strasbourg conference made us aware that some serious nudging was needed in order to bring the historically oriented core of the society to embrace or even just interact with the social-scientific approaches necessary for studying contemporary phenomena. So we sat down and drew up a wish-list of authors linked with topics we knew they were great at and wanted them to write about, with the intention of collecting a volume that would demonstrate the sheer breadth of stuff that one has to look at, and also introduce some of the key theoretical discussions we need to have to account for this. Almost all of our first choices accepted invitation, and we got a selection of articles we were very pleased with. But even though we are happy with the way this volume has turned out, we are painfully aware that it is only a small step. What the book covers of important topics is far outmatched by what it leaves out. Kennet and I would be the first to acknowledge this, and we did so in the introduction to the book as well as at the First International Conference on Contemporary Esotericism in Stockholm last year, where the book was officially launched. There’s definitely much work to be done in this field. We hope that the book, the conference, and the ContERN network we co-ordinate can help inspire more such work.

[EDW] Like myself, you have embraced social media as a means of interacting with a much wider range of people who have an interest in scholarship and academia; not only have you got your own Twitter and Academia.edu accounts, but you also have your own blog, Heterodoxology: Exploring the Heterodox in Science, Religion, and Politics. What are your views on the power of social media and blogging for scholarly outreach?

[EA] I think it’s a great resource. Not just as another channel for dissemination, though, but as a form of scholarly praxis as well. I was better at this when I first started Heterodoxology back in 2010, but writing blogs can be a great way to try out ideas and “think on paper” – and in dialogue with a community. In my experience this complements both research and teaching quite well, in addition to creating some visibility for your work.

[EDW] Have you noticed any significant increase in the amount of attention that your research has received as a result of Heterodoxology and those other ventures?

[EA] Well yes, these channels certainly are important for outreach too. Heterodoxology put me in touch with some of the HistSci blog community at a crucial phase in my PhD research, which was important since I needed external support in that field being technically in a religious studies department myself. More recently, Academia.edu has proved very good for disseminating papers, articles and reviews to people who would not otherwise have had access. That is massively important. For example, a conference paper that would otherwise only have had a couple dozen listeners at the conference itself (at least 2/3s of whom would forget by the end of the evening), and maybe another dozen readers through ridiculously expensive conference proceedings, can now get hundreds of readers through Academia.edu. Both scholars and non-scholars. A recent paper I uploaded led to some great comments and corrections from peers whom I did not know but had come across it, and eventually it was picked up by a couple of editors for magazines who wanted spin-off articles. Social media can thus further academic collaboration and exchange (which is sadly hindered rather than promoted by some key structures in academic dissemination at the moment), and is also a great tool for diminishing the distance between academic knowledge production and more “traditional” media for popularization. The combination of social media, research blogging, and open-access publishing is the most forward-looking trend in academic text production and dissemination at the moment, in my opinion.

[EDW] Do you think that smaller, more specialised fields like the academic study of Western esotericism have to rely on these outlets to a greater extent than bigger, well-established fields?

[EA] At least I think the strategic advantage we gain is larger than what some established disciplines get by investing in it. Whether they are more essential to us or not in the longer run is hard to say, and depends on many other factors. But we certainly have nothing to lose on gained visibility and creating an online academic community.

[EDW] Since 2010, you have been on the board of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE) and are currently serving as its treasurer and membership secretary. Along with Dr. Kennet Granholm you also run the Contemporary Esotericism Research Network (ContERN), which I understand is affiliated with ESSWE. What role do you believe that these learned societies and the conferences they run have for the academic study of Western esotericism?

[EA] The ESSWE has been absolutely essential to the field over the last decade. It’s meant a lot to the professionalisation of research in Europe. The biannual conferences have provided a unique scene for building international connections, coordinating new projects, and so on. The Aries journal and the Aries Book Series are both published under the auspices of the ESSWE. Furthermore, and I think this is maybe the most important thing in the long run, the ESSWE has consistently attracted a lot of student members from a variety of disciplines - religious studies, anthropology, intellectual history, art history, philosophy, sociology, and so forth. These are people with a shared interest in esotericism, but without a professional framework for doing it. ESSWE gives them the connections they need to continue. In the longer run, this is how we build a new generation of scholars who may be working in a number of different disciplines, but who nevertheless share the same language for talking about Western esotericism, read some of the same journals, visit the same conferences, and know the same references. Without the work of organisations such as the ESSWE, esotericism would have been doomed to remain the interest of erudite amateurs without a shared language and without the collaborative effort to build new knowledge that characterises an academic field. I’m very excited to have been part of running this organisation for the past three years. And to answer the second part of your question, I think that the establishment of local groups (SNASWE, INASWE, CEEO-UNASUR) and thematic research networks (ContERN, NSEA, and the latest addition, WEAVE) is one of the most valuable new things coming out of ESSWE in recent years. Stimulating such initiatives further should in my opinion be a priority task for the future.

[EDW] Are there any research projects or publications on the horizon that we should be keeping an eye out for?

[EA] I’m not sure it you mean by me or in general, so I’ll answer for both.

There’s lots of very interesting PhD dissertations being written out there at the moment. I’m especially looking forward to those. On the home front, I’ve been polishing up several old projects these past few months that should appear in print next year. But most of all I’m excited about starting an entirely new research project in December. I’m moving to Santa Barbara to work with Professor Ann Taves and her team out there, hoping to develop a deeper knowledge of some useful cognitive science and psychology of religion. I want to see how we can use this to reframe some old questions in esotericism research and take it new places. The plan is to devote the next two years solely to this project. So hopefully you won’t see too many other publications from me in a few years.

[EDW] A question that I ask everyone in this interview series is where they think that their particular academic field is headed. The academic study of Western esotericism now has departments devoted to it at the Universities of Amsterdam and Exeter, and there are currently two peer-reviewed journals dedicated to the subject, but do you think that this is a momentum that can be maintained considering the major economic changes that universities are now facing? In particular, from the perspective of a professional academic, what role do you see for the independent scholar of Western esotericism in coming decades?

[EA] “Winter is coming” rings true for many academics today, and I think you’re feeling it harder already in the UK than in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, which are the places I know best. But despite all that I think we should try to be optimists, and focus on the possibilities this field has. One of those is no doubt its interdisciplinarity. We often say this, but we could afford to think a bit more systematically about what it means. If played right, it means that scholars of esotericism –– or let’s say, graduates from one of the few places that offer graduate programs –– can in theory work in a wide range of disciplines if they choose to stay in the academy. In fact, that’s one of the few things a new student knows for sure when they start a PhD in this field: most likely, there isn’t going to be any position available what so ever that focuses purely on esotericism. I don’t think Wouter [Hanegraaff] is going to give up his position in Amsterdam any time soon, and who knows what’s happening with Exeter. But that’s okay, because an expert in esotericism will also have built research competence relevant for one or several more established disciplines –– history, religious studies, cultural studies, sociology, etc. This is precisely why all the collaborative, interdisciplinary, international work that is being done through organisations such as ESSWE is so important: as long as there are networks like this, specialists of various disciplines as well as independent scholars can continue to meet, exchange ideas and build this field together.

That said, it is also evident that the future of the field is dependent on what the new generation of scholars chooses to do with it. That is my generation, our generation. Will we do things that continue to marginalize the field and work counter to professionalization? Or will we aim to thoroughly integrate what we do with the best and most cutting-edge research of whatever discipline they are working? Do we create an island, or build bridges? Needless to say I favour the latter approach. I think the future of esotericism is as an interdisciplinary field of research and study, rather than as a separate “discipline,” with its own methods and theories. Its success hinges on our ability to make research relevant to all the disciplines we come in contact with. This is a discussion we’ll continue to be having in the future, but the consequences of what we choose becoming quite clear I think. In the end it boils down to whether we want esotericism to be a university study or not.

[EDW] Dr Asprem, thank you for talking to Albion Calling today. You have given us all much to think about, and I wish you well in Santa Barbara.

Friday 4 October 2013

An Interview with Michael G. Lloyd

Last week here at Albion Calling I interviewed Professor Emeritus Robert Mathiesen, a historian of witchcraft in the United States who has undertaken research into the origins of the Wiccan tradition propagated by Gwen Thompson (1928-1986). This week I talk to another historian of American witchcraft, the independent scholar Michael G. Lloyd, who is the author of an authoritative biography on one of Thompson’s most prominent initiates, Edmund “Eddie” Buczynski (1947-1989), founder of the Minoan Brotherhood. As regular readers might be aware, several months ago I wrote a review of this book, Bull of Heaven: The Mythic Life of Eddie Buczynski and the Rise of the New York Pagan (Asphodel Press, 2012), which was published in The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies (you can read it online for free here). In that review, I described Bull of Heaven as “the finest independent Pagan studies scholarship to have been produced in the United States to date,” not a claim that I make lightly!  Hoping to learn more about the man behind this enlightening and enjoyable read, I invited Lloyd to discuss his magnum opus and his views on the state of Pagan studies scholarship today.

Photograph by Debby Drake

[EDW] In Bull of Heaven, you were open about your status as a practitioner of contemporary Paganism, and your role in the foundation of the Between the Worlds Men’s Gathering, a Pagan festival for gay and bisexual men. How did your involvement in this religious movement come about, and do you feel that it has influenced or inspired your scholarship within the field of Pagan studies?

[MGL] I’ve always had a love of ancient cultures, particularly those of Greece and Egypt. I voraciously read everything I could get my hands on regarding the religions and cultures of those two lands, but I was not myself religious. I was raised nominally Protestant, meaning we only went to church to marry ‘em and to bury ‘em. This was the 1960s and 1970s, when a lot of the religious straitjacketing of US society was beginning to be questioned (and to crumble under the scrutiny). I considered myself to be an atheist until college, and I still have a healthy skepticism of religion (and people’s claims therein).

In the late 1970s, I explored Catholicism because many of my college friends were Catholic, and even began adult catechism. But I dropped out when I became aware of the inner politics of the church, and as the church hardened its heart against gay people. I still enjoyed the ritual, however, and eventually found my way to a gay Protestant church. But even then I still maintained a healthy skepticism of religious claims. As I continued to read and compare religious practices, I realized that much of what we take for divinely inspired Christian practice was, in fact, adapted from ancient Pagan cults.

At that point (now the late 1980s), I shifted my focus to exploring Paganism. An increasing amount of information was becoming publicly available on different traditions and paths. I began hanging out at occult shops, making friends in the community, attending different types of rituals (including that hosted by Wiccan, Druid, and Norse groups). I still couldn’t find anything that spoke to me. In the summer of 1998, a gay witch and I started a discussion group on Randy Conner’s book Blossom of Bone, which is a historical overview of homoeroticism in spirituality across many cultures. When the group ended, I still felt the need to have group interactions. I ended up co-founding the Green Faerie Grove, a witchcraft coven for gay and bi men, with three other men at Yule of 1998.

Also in 1998, I heard mention on an AOL chat group of a tradition for gay and bi men called the Minoan Brotherhood. After making inquiries for months, a member of that tradition finally answered and I was eventually directed to a teacher. I became a third degree in the Minoan Brotherhood in early 2002. That same year, I co-founded Between the Worlds with another member of Green Faerie Grove. We had been attending Pagan Spirit Gathering for several years, and we paid attention to how a festival was planned, organized, and executed. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many Pagan practitioners from across North America. This has allowed me a chance to expand my knowledge and my circle of friends and contacts.

I realize that this is the long trip to answering your question. Ultimately, however, without every step I took along this path, I don’t believe that Bull of Heaven would have been written. In particular, my own personal involvement in the community, and my contacts therein, gave me access to many people who may not have spoken with an outsider. It also gave me an understanding of the inner workings and practices of various groups, which allowed me to tailor my research and interviews effectively. Without these contacts and knowledge, it would have been virtually impossible to have written a good biography of Eddie Buczynski. And if you aren’t going to set out with the intention of writing a good biography (or any type of history), then you probably shouldn’t even attempt to start one in the first place.

Cover design by Carvin Rinehart

[EDW] Although definitely important in the history of contemporary American Paganism, Eddie Buczynski has been a largely neglected figure in pre-existing histories of Pagan Witchcraft; he for instance receives no mention in Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon or Chas S. Clifton’s Her Hidden Children. That being the case, how did you first learn about him, and what was it that so interested you about this particular figure and the New York City milieu in which he lived?

[MGL] I have great admiration for both Hutton and Clifton. To be fair, I would have been shocked if Buczynski had registered on the radar of either author. As I explained above, I had become a member of the Minoan Brotherhood, which Eddie Buczynski had founded in 1977. Had I not taken that step, the chances are good that I might never have heard about Buczynski either, as he was only spoken of within certain groups in New York City. Buczynski left the limelight right before public interest in Paganism really took off in the 1980s (he died in 1989), and that is why he disappeared so quickly from the rolls. If he had remained publicly active for even a few more years, he would likely have been more widely remembered.

I had originally just planned on writing a short biographical paper on Eddie’s life. Early into the project, I realized that this approach would be woefully inadequate given the complexity of his story. It was several years into the project that I realized that, if I didn’t include a large measure of what was going on in NYC and in the US, Eddie’s story would simply lose all context, as readers today would be scratching their heads wondering why folks did what they did back then. It was my good friend Christopher Penczak who later suggested that I change the subtitle of the book to reflect this expanded scope.

I love New York City. It’s such a whirling maelstrom of humanity. You will encounter a cross-section of the world there. And its place as a center of media, finance and culture was absolutely crucial to the blossoming of the occult/Pagan movement in the US in the late 20th Century. I could never live there - its simply too much for this former farm boy. But I was named an honorary resident of the city by the NYC Gay Men’s Open Pagan Circle in 2011 for my work on behalf of the city’s Pagan community, and I am very proud of that honor.

[EDW] Your research was copious and must have taken years to complete. You communicated with hundreds of people and examined a huge array of documents from the period. It is this thorough research that is a big reason why Bull of Heaven is such a good book. What was it like doing that research, particularly without a university support base that many academics perhaps take for granted? Furthermore, how did you get started on such a daunting project; were you always thinking about writing a book?

[MGL] I’m an engineer, which surprises some because I’m sure that we’ve all known engineers who cannot craft a decent sentence to save their lives. But that career has given me the income and leisure to conduct research separate from a university and its own wealth of resources. I didn’t have to rely on a book advance, nor was I on anyone’s timetable but my own. And thank the Gods for that, because two of the things which took the greatest amount of time were tracking people down and convincing them to cooperate with the project.

That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have welcomed the resources of a university! (I should note here that I did receive input from the faculties of both Hunter College CUNY and Bryn Mawr College) But I am a university graduate and thus have a nominal understanding of how to conduct research. I also produced a GLBT public affairs radio program in the late 1980s, and have had training in industrial accident investigation. Both of these experiences have given me some rudimentary interview skills.

If you want to pursue a project of this nature, you need to be prepared to get your hands dirty (sometimes quite literally). I spent days and weeks digging through archives stored in barns and basements, pawing through stacks of old magazines and books in used bookstores, or bent over microfilm readers in libraries and copying machines in stationary stores. If you are allergic to dust, molds and mildews, you may want to rethink your path or else get your hands on a strong allergy prescription.

All of that aside, I don’t think that I could have successfully completed this project without the use of the internet. And by internet, I don’t just mean Wikipedia – which has some limited uses, but only when it is appropriately sourced (which wasn’t nearly often enough for my purposes). I mainly used the internet to track down people, organizations, books, and magazines, as well as for things like perpetual lunar calendars, which can tell when full and dark moons have fallen in the past (a useful tool when researching Witchcraft traditions). I found a number of people using the internet, which is somewhat creepy on one hand, but absolutely necessary if you are trying to locate people to interview and have nowhere else to turn.

As I noted previously, the book started out as a paper, and then sort of grew organically. I know that some folks believe that it is too big, and that there are places where Eddie fades into the background. However, I still believe that I told the story that needed telling, and not just the one that folks were expecting of me. I worked on Bull of Heaven for the better part of nine years. I had originally thought that I would be finished in 2005. Then 2006. Then 2007. Had my future self popped back in time to tell me that I wouldn’t complete it until 2012, I probably would have quailed at the prospect. As it was, I believe that the book took as long as it needed to take. And I am glad that I didn’t wait to start it, as seven people who I interviewed for the story passed away in that time. And some of the stories I uncovered were fascinating in their own right – for example, a previously unpublished account of the Stonewall riots from someone who was in the bar during the raid.

[EDW] Independent scholars like yourself have added much to our knowledge of contemporary Pagan history over the past few decades; here in Britain we have Philip Heselton, who has extensively studied the life and times of Gerald Gardner and the early Gardnerian Wiccans. This being the case, what role do you see for the independent scholar in Pagan studies?

[MGL] I adore Philip. He was unstintingly kind and helpful in my own research, and is such a wonderful resource for the community both in the UK and over here. It takes a special breed of person to be able to do this kind of work, whether one is independent or is associated with a university program. You need to be polite. It seems strange to have to state that, but many people simply aren’t polite. They don’t say please and thank you nearly often enough. They have an unwarranted sense of entitlement. They are not gracious when sources say no, nor grateful when they say yes. Those people skills are absolutely essential because, when all is said and done, the writer in this field is dependent to a large extent upon the kindness of strangers. You are asking them to take their time to speak or correspond with you. You are asking them to divulge sensitive, perhaps even embarrassing, details of their lives, and to relive what may be uncomfortable memories. It takes a lot of chutzpah to ask such of strangers – and to answer such strangers who ask.

You have to be willing to pay your own way. I cannot tell you how irritated it makes me when someone asks me to copy and mail stuff to them without so much as a mention of recompense for expenses. So why, then, should I expect someone else to foot the bill for my project? I always offered to reimburse individuals and organizations for the costs they have incurred to help me. It is not only polite, it is ethical. Speaking of ethics, this is a point which should be noted. A writer needs to be up front with his sources about what he intends to do with the material/information s/he is given, and to work within the limitations which have been set for its use as best as possible. There are almost always ethical means by which one can work within these limitations. Access to arcane information is a trust, and is probably the biggest advantage that the independent scholar – albeit, one with the proper bona fides within the Pagan community – has over the academic scholar who does not have those references.

It is essential for the writer in this field to have some critical thinking skills. And I think that this is truly where the writer associated with a university has the distinct advantage over many independent scholars, particularly those associated with the Pagan community. One must be willing to – sensitively – cull the facts from the lore if one is to produce a defensible story that honors the truth (or is, at least, as close as one is able to get to it). This can be hard for the writer who is embedded within the Pagan community, as there is always some pressure not to contradict the stories that everyone has come to know and accept as “gospel.” This isn’t to say that all Pagan scholars are predisposed to shade the truth, or that all academic scholars are meticulously objective. But the Pagan scholar must be willing and prepared to sustain criticism from the Pagan community when their conclusions touch on sensitive topics (which they all must, given the underlying humanity of both one’s subject and one’s readers). In contrast, the scholar from the academic world, generally speaking, has a built-in system of professional checks and balances (advisers, referees, journal reviewers and the like) which make it somewhat more difficult for them to get away with “soft” thinking should the writer choose that route. Except, of course, when it doesn’t.  It is important to remember that no one is perfect, and that no system is fool-proof.

The ideal writer in the field of modern Pagan studies is one who has both the connections to obtain the information which sustains the research and the critical thinking skills necessary to analyze it and craft a story that aligns with the facts as they are known. This is, as one might imagine, easier said than done. Nevertheless, the independent scholar can be a crucial player in this field if s/he has the requisite skills and resources. I can also see the potential for partnerships between independent and academic scholars in this area which would allow both to play to their inherent strengths.

It is also absolutely vital that one be capable of slinging sentences with a fair degree of technical ability and even charm. This needs to be said because we are speaking in part about non-professional writers, and those writers in particular tend to greatly overestimate their technical writing abilities. Over the years I’ve heard a number of people say that they were going to write a book, but the samples of their writing that I’ve seen would send the ablest of editors off screaming in terror. If you want to write, first read! And then learn from what you read with regard to sentence structure, the ordering of ideas and themes, and – for Gods’ sakes – spelling and punctuation. You may have the greatest idea in the world for a book, but if you cannot skillfully communicate it who is ever going to read it?

Finally, it helps to have a healthy appreciation for the absurd. After all, we are dealing with human beings, which are the most absurd of creatures. A sense of humor (along with respect and politeness), when properly wielded, can be an awesome tool for disarming uncomfortable interview subjects and for placing serious topics in perspective. At any rate, that’s how I use it in my own writings.

[EDW] With Bull of Heaven now published, do you have any future research projects or publications either in the pipeline or on the horizon?

[MGL] I do. I have been working on a volume dedicated to ancient and modern Dionysian ritual and worship that I am writing with an archaeologist and an anthropologist. That project had been on the back burner for some years while Bull of Heaven was being written. I have written a screenplay based on Bull of Heaven and am working on yet another screenplay based in my experience in the Pagan community. There is a series of novels which I have been toying with for some time. And I have been offered the opportunity to publish a revised second edition of Bull of Heaven that will include some additional information and interviews.

[EDW] This is a question that I ask all of those whom I have interviewed in this series, but I would be particularly interested to hear your take on the issue. Where exactly do you think the field of Pagan studies is headed in future?

[MGL] One of the reasons that I wrote Bull of Heaven was in the hopes that I could interest more scholars to study the history of modern Paganism in the US. There is such a wealth of information out there just waiting to be explored. My own native state of Ohio here in the US has had a very active involvement in Paganism dating back many decades, and yet nothing substantial has been written on the subject. As to the history of the occult and Paganism in New York City or of gays in the Pagan movement – I’ve only just scratched the surface. I challenge other scholars to take up that ball and run it further down the pitch.

[EDW] On behalf of both myself and my readers, thank you very much for this interview Mr Lloyd, and I hope that it serves to inspire more independent scholars to delve into the study of modern Paganism.

Thursday 26 September 2013

An Interview with Professor Emeritus Robert Mathiesen

Today here at Albion Calling, I am interviewing Dr. Robert Mathiesen, an American medievalist, Slavist, and historian of Western esotericism. Now Professor Emeritus at Brown University, Rhode Island, where he has worked since 1967, in recent years Dr. Mathiesen has turned his attention to both the textual evidence for witchcraft in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States, as well as the work of folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland, who himself played a significant role in the development of contemporary Pagan Witchcraft. We talk about Mathiesen’s life, research, and thoughts about the future of research on these topics.

Professor Mathiesen and his wife

[EDW] You obtained your bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964, and then your PhD from Columbia University, New York for a dissertation titled “The Inflectional Morphology of the Synodal Church Slavonic Verb,” in 1974. Your interest at the time was in Slavic linguistics and philology, and it would be interesting to learn how you first became involved in such a subject, which I’d imagine was complicated by the fact that Eastern Europe was then on the other side of the Iron Curtain?

[RM] That’s a long, strange story. I was always greatly interested in dead languages and old writing systems, and also I had a talent for mathematics and the hard sciences. This led me to my first esoteric teacher outside of my own family, Clesson Hopkins Harvey (1925-2012), who was teaching physics at Berkeley High School. He had a degree in physical chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, but his parents had been members of Katherine Tingley’s branch of the Theosophical Society at Point Loma, in San Diego, California, and he had passed through the excellent school system that the Society operated at Point Loma, rather than through the California public school system. He knew how to read Old-Kingdom Egyptian hieroglyphics as well as Classical Tibetan, and he ran an after-school club for students at that school who wanted to learn how to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. He and I became quite friendly, and eventually I spent many happy hours in his apartment translating some of the Pyramid Texts under his direction and hearing his esoteric commentary on them. He also had many fascinating stories to tell about his own occult adventures. I had already studied Latin and German in high school, but Old Egyptian was my first language that did not use the Latin alphabet.

I also had good friends at Berkeley High School whose families had fled Russia after the Bolsheviks seized power. Because of them I wanted to learn Russian also, and I began to study that language at the University, as well as several other languages. I soon learned that my friends’ church, the Russian Orthodox Church, used as its liturgical language a much older form of Slavic, written in a beautiful and complicated black-letter alphabet. This liturgical language was called Church Slavonic. As it happened, the University also had a course on its oldest variety, Old Church Slavonic, which was offered by a brilliant linguist and superb teacher, Francis J. Whitfield (1916-1996). I took that course, and I became fascinated with Slavic historical linguistics and philology. And so off I went to graduate school, almost on a whim, to pursue that interest. Columbia University seemed the best place to do so (and they offered me financial aid), although it had the serious drawback of being in New York City, which was far too noisy and intense a place for an introvert like myself.

More generally, the whole question of ritual or sacral languages also seemed to me worth pursuing academically. Why is there a tendency, even in non-literate cultures, to use a special, archaic form of language in religious and magical ritual? What effect does the use of such a language naturally have on the consciousness of the participants in that ritual? (And can we tease out the psychological or neurological bases of these effects?)

As for the Iron Curtain, it wasn’t too much of a problem for me, really. The Soviet regime had largely suppressed scholarship in all the fields that most interested me, and it limited access to the primary sources on which such scholarship is based, so I had little reason to travel there. Also, like many an introvert, I have never really enjoyed traveling. If, however, there had been such a thing as a time machine, I might have wanted to visit with several scholars from bygone centuries.

[EDW] Although not directly related to your scholarship, it is noteworthy that you were enrolled in the American university system during the era of the growing counterculture, civil rights, and anti-war protests, which attracted international attention. Their legacy lives on today; were you involved in these movements in any way, and did they affect you during your studies?

[RM] I was born nine months after the United States entered World War II, and so I was just a year too old to have encountered these events while I was a student, either at Berkeley or at Columbia. However, I had friends who played a role behind the scenes in exporting the student revolution from Berkeley throughout the United States, and I heard their stories. (The student revolution was not simply a spontaneous nation-wide movement; its spread from Berkeley to other universities was funded and otherwise facilitated by a small group of activists, among whom were one or two of my friends.)

In 1967 I moved to New England and joined the faculty of Brown University (in the state of Rhode Island). Brown was a small and very good college in those days, and its internal governance and administration happened to be very weak and ineffectual during most of the first decade I was there. So the student revolution encountered almost no resistance from on high at Brown. In the absence of any confrontation, cooperation developed easily between students and most of the younger faculty. Thus all that revolutionary energy was channelled into academic reform, resulting in the University’s quite free-wheeling and open “new curriculum” in 1969. It was the perfect permissive environment for an eccentric like me to start his academic career.

Now Brown University has changed almost out of all recognition from those long-ago permissive days. It has transformed itself from an excellent college for undergraduate students into a middle-ranked research university with strong graduate and professional schools. It is now rather tightly governed and administered so as to maximize its own institutional wealth and power and minimize all risk, rather than to advance knowledge for knowledge’s own sake. The old university ideals of Lernfreiheit and Lehrfreiheit (the freedom to learn and the freedom to teach whatever one likes) are very much attenuated at Brown now, at least in comparison to the 1970s. However, as Heraclitus said so long ago, “all things flow.” The current restrictive era, too, may pass.

Professor Mathiesen with is wife and granddaughter

[EDW] In 1967, Brown University employed you as an instructor in Slavic languages, before raising you to the position of Assistant Professor in 1972 and then Professor in 1986. Over that period, you produced a variety of booklets to accompany exhibitions, such as The Ostrih Bible 1580/1–1980/1: A Quadricentennial Exhibition (Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, 1980), Late Medieval Herbals: An Exhibit at the John Hay Library (Committee on Medieval Studies, 1983–84), and The Great Polyglot Bibles: The Impact of Printing on Religion in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (John Carter Brown Library, 1985), alongside numerous journal articles, book chapters and reviews. Your interests moved from Slavic languages to the Middle Ages of Western Europe; what was it that led you to do so, and were Brown happy for you to move into a different field?

[RM] The causes were economic. For all its permissiveness, Brown rightly expected its faculty to teach classes that actually would have students enrolled in them. As the Cold War wound down and government funds for the advanced study of Slavic languages dried up, there was no longer any sustained student demand for courses in Slavic historical linguistics. If I had been an all-around Slavist, I might have started to offer courses in modern Slavic languages and literatures, as my colleagues at other universities found it easy to do. However, despite my advanced degree, I had not prepared myself to be an all-around Slavist, but rather an all-around Medieval philologist and historical linguist with a primary specialization in Eastern Orthodox Slavic lands. And I did have a fair number of Medieval languages, Western as well as Eastern. So I began to offer courses in Medieval Studies, although Brown had no formal department for that field, only a loose network of interested faculty who were housed in a wide variety of departments. In the early 1980s a professor could still shift fields in this way at Brown. It became much more difficult to do that in the 1990s, as formal credentials began to count for much more at Brown than proven competence or expertise.

The methods of historical linguistics, philology, textual criticism, palaeography and codicology are generally the same, no matter what the Medieval languages and texts to which they are applied. So I started offering undergraduate courses on those methods. They proved quite effective at Brown because the University’s libraries had (and have) a variegated collection of Medieval manuscripts, as well as major holdings of incunabula (books printed in the 15th century) and other early-printed books. Also, library policy allowed undergraduate students unrestricted access to all these rare materials, so my courses included a lot of hands-on work with manuscripts and early-printed books. Through these courses, I developed excellent relations with the Special-Collections librarians at Brown and elsewhere, which led to the exhibit catalogues you mentioned.

As a Medievalist, of course, I needed not just a passing familiarity with Christianity, but real expertise in the history and practice of that religion, and particularly in such subjects as Medieval Christian theology, Biblical and patristic studies, liturgics and the computus (that is, liturgical calendar calculations), etc. An uncommon sort of expertise, indeed, for a non-Abrahamic scholar such as myself to have developed!

[EDW] Esotericism and magic appear to have been your primary research interest for several decades now; I’m sure that many of my readers would be interested in learning where this fascination stemmed from. Did you personally come from what you have referred to as an “esoteric family” or is it something that you were initially exposed to in later life?

[RM] Yes, my mother’s family has had esoteric interests from the 1870s or 1880s onward, which came down to me. It was a very narrow line of transmission. My great-great-grandmother was the first ancestor whose esoteric interests I can document (from her scrapbooks and from contemporary publications that mention her). Her only child, my great-grandmother, lived until I was about ten years old, and I knew her house and its contents well. She owned a genuine human skull (an anatomical preparation from the late 1800s), which lived—that was the word we used—in the same box with the old photographs of her own ancestors. (Now I have that skull.) Her curio cabinet held a couple of gazing crystals, an opium pipe and a dried opium poppy seed head, as well as other ancient family relics. Great-grandmother, in turn, also had only one child, my grandmother Zena, who had died before I was born. Grandmother had two children, my mother Edris and my aunt Muriel.

All these five women had esoteric interests, which they pursued in a desultory and somewhat frivolous manner. Their interests appear to have derived from the magical wing of Spiritualism (as exemplified by such figures as Emma Hardinge Britten and possibly Paschal Beverly Randolph) and from the mind-over-matter magic of New Thought and Christian Science (“magic with the serial numbers filed off,” as John Michael Greer and others have called it). Also, they were greatly inspired by the esoteric and occult themes woven into the novels of Marie Corelli, H. Rider Haggard and Sax Rohmer. In addition, great-grandmother’s husband practiced the Delsarte System of gymnastics and physical culture. This had been brought to California by Genevieve Stebbins, who was also involved with the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and the Church of Light; in her hands the Delsarte System could be applied for esoteric ends. These ancestors of mine took those esoteric ingredients and blended them with California-style Nature Religion, or Pantheism, as popularized by luminaries like Joaquin Miller and John Muir, thus creating their own personal kind of magic and religion. “Magical Pantheism” seems to me to be the best description of the beliefs in which I was raised by my mother.

Some decades ago I passed on a copy of Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon to my mother, who read it with considerable interest, and remarked, “That’s almost exactly what I believe.” (Despite her response, it is important to note that neither she nor any of her ancestors thought of themselves as Witches. Witches, for them, simply did not exist, except as a role one might play at a Hallowe’en party.)

My father’s family, in contrast, had no religious or spiritual interests whatever. My father was a mechanical engineer working in the defense and aerospace industries, and he was an agnostic. His step-father, however, had traveled for some years in his youth with a carnival, where he learned the ways of sharpers and con-artists. Grandfather knew how to judge the fineness of a piece of gold simply by biting it. He could open a safe without knowing its combination, or deal you any hand of cards you cared to name from a new deck that he had never handled. He had met and married my grandmother while they were both working for a local auction-house in Oakland, California, that, along with its legitimate activities, also quietly fenced stolen goods and peddled political influence. She kept the accounts for the whole business (the false books that auditors could inspect anytime, but also the true books that nobody else ever got to see). When I got to know my grandparents, decades later, their former employer had long been dead, and they ran a small auction-house of their own that specialized in intestate estates. Grandmother had had quite enough of shady dealings by that time, so she insisted that their own business was run entirely above-board, without even routine kick-backs and bribes to the Public Administrator (who assigned intestate estates to various auction-houses for conversion into ready money). Consequently, they never prospered, though they no longer had to worry about getting caught out and being sent to prison. That seemed a fair trade-off to my grandmother.

While I was growing up, dinner-table conversations could be uncommonly instructive. My mother might talk about some esoteric phenomenon, my father would come up with an engineer’s explanation for it on scientific principles, and rarely his stepfather might be persuaded to say a little about how the same apparent result could be accomplished by fraud and deception. I could not have asked for a better upbringing!

[EDW] In the 1990s, you began teaching courses titled “Magic in the Middle Ages,” “Women, Magic, and Power 1800–1960,” and “Esoteric Russia” at Brown. What inspired your decision to initiate these courses, and did you face much opposition for teaching such unconventional topics?

[RM] I was one of five faculty who team-taught the course “Introduction to Medieval Studies” here at Brown. I had been doing the first unit, on the chronological and geographical boundaries of the Medieval World, its distinct periods and regions. The other four units were on whatever topics the other four faculty wanted to present that year, with the only proviso that the topics might intrigue students who were taking the course. Eventually I tired of teaching the first unit and traded with a colleague for one of the four free-topic units. That was the first academic year after Richard Kieckhefer’s Magic in the Middle Ages had just been published, and I had just been reading it. So I decided to offer my unit on that topic. Student response to the topic was so strong and so gratifying that I decided to offer a full course under the same title the following academic year (1991/2). I had thought I might draw twenty students at the most. Instead, about 500 appeared in the classroom on the first day, though their number eventually settled down to about 300. I had never taught a class larger than about 20 before, so I had to learn on the fly how to run a very large course. It was not my finest hour! But with practice I got better at teaching large classes.

In the early 1990s about one-fifth of the students in the course self-identified to me as Pagan (or Wiccan or Asatru) or as magic-users of some variety. Brown was still pretty free-wheeling in the early 1990s. Around 1995 our admissions office began to seek out another, more entrepreneurial sort of applicant for admission; after that date many fewer students in my courses self-identified as Pagan or as magical folk.

My other course, “Women, Magic and Power, 1800-1960,” came about almost by accident. I was sitting in my office talking somewhat at random with my UTRA [my undergraduate teaching and research assistant] about the history of alternative magical religions in the USA, and how most of them had been founded and led by women, when my UTRA from the previous year happened to stop by and join the conversation. She was very enthusiastic for Women’s Studies, and her response to the conversation was, “Why haven’t we ever been told about these women in any of our courses on Religious Studies or Women’s Studies at Brown? Are courses taught on them anywhere else?” I said that there weren’t, so far as I knew, probably because faculty in Religious Studies were mostly uncomfortable with taking magic seriously, and faculty in Women’s Studies were, by and large, equally uncomfortable with taking religion seriously, since it played so great a role in upholding patriarchal forms of society.

With that we were off and running . . . The two of them helped me work out a syllabus for the new course, and I was able to offer it for the first time in the academic year 1998/9. (I owe them both a great deal. A huge public thank-you, Kate and Rebecca; you know who you are!)

Before that conversation, my research on women-led magical alternative religions had been nothing more than a personal voyage of discovery. I had been trying to figure out how my mother’s family came to be so very different from other families, so weird and odd even for California and the San Francisco Bay area. My mother’s favorite saying was, “Mathiesens are different!” (No doubt her own mother had told her, “Leathermans are different,” and so on back through the generations of women before her, with a different surname each time.) By that saying she meant that her whole family, past and present, had made a point of being different. The gloss on that old family saying was not only that we were obligated by birth and upbringing to cultivate ways to be different from everyone else in our society, but even ways to be different from one another within our family. Each of us had a duty to find our own way to be different. Also, we weren’t ever to be part of any community, or to give any community our loyalty, or to conform to its norms, or respect it and its laws as anything more than a necessary evil.

There wasn’t any opposition at first to my courses at Brown. I had a reputation as a first-rate scholar. Also, everyone simply took it for granted that I, like any other academic in a major university, could not possibly take either magic or alternative religion seriously. Brown, like all other major universities, was far too respectable! But I never cared about appearances or social conventions, beyond the bare minimum needed not to run afoul of the law, and I never tried to hide my own strong interest in how magic can actually be made to work in the hands of a skilled and knowledgeable magician (or, sometimes, can be made to seem to work). And I talked about these things, outside of class, with any and all interested students.

So there was trouble, eventually. But I had developed my own academic power bases, and I quietly let it be known that, although I didn’t like to fight and didn’t ever want to fight, whenever I had been forced to fight in the past, I had never fought fair, but had always gone for the jugular or hit below the belt with my very first blow. And after thirty years at Brown, I had come to know which other closets had skeletons in them, too. So I was able to keep trouble more or less at bay for a few years, until I was ready to retire on my own terms. I think there might have been a feeling of relief among the administrators when I did retire. If there was, I take it as a high compliment. I was certainly glad to be done with university life forever. At least in my corner of Brown, academic politics since the early 1970s reminded me (as it did many of my colleagues) of Gunther in the snake pit: being able to play one’s harp only slightly mitigated the effects of the venom.

[EDW] Alongside Richard Kieckhefer and Claire Fanger, you were one of the three founders of the Societas Magica, an academic fellowship devoted to the scholarly study of magical beliefs and practices. Can you tell us a little about how this organisation came about, and the reasons that you had for initiating the group? Furthermore, now that the society has been around for almost twenty years, what do you see as its strengths and achievements, and do you have any particular hopes for its future?

[RM] The Societas Magica was conceived within the matrix of the International Congress on Medieval Studies, which meets every year in May at Western Michigan University (in Kalamazoo, Michigan). Its initial purpose was the very modest one of arranging annual sessions devoted to the history of magic, especially Medieval magic, as a part of that Congress.

If memory serves me rightly, the idea of such a society was floated in the course of a casual conversation between the three of us as our paths happened to cross between scheduled sessions. For the most part, it was Claire Fanger who actually carried the ball and ran with it during the early years, together with her friend and colleague Frank F. Klaassen. The two of them dealt with the administration of the Congress every year, launched a newsletter, arranged for the scheduled sessions of papers, and prepared the ground for the Society’s annual meeting (also held at the Congress).

Now, of course, the Societas Magica has become an established institution. I consider myself fortunate to have been present at its birth. But, for reasons of health, I have found it nearly impossible to travel now, so I have not been able to attend any meetings of the society since the early 2000s. Thus I am not very up-to-date on its current activities.

[EDW] In the summer of 2005, you retired to become Professor Emeritus, although have remained actively involved in the academic study of magic. With Andrew Theitic, you have been investigating the texts that lie at the heart of the New England Covens of Traditionalist Witches (NECTW), a tradition of Wicca founded by Gwen Thompson in 1970. Published as The Rede of the Wiccae: Adriana Porter, Gwen Thompson and the Birth of a Tradition of Witchcraft (Olympian Press, 2005), this work has been of real importance in unearthing more about the development of Pagan Witchcraft in the United States. How did this situation come about, and do you have any intention of continuing with any similar research in future?

[RM] Theitic has been my good friend for decades. I first met him through his partner (now deceased), who worked at Brown and audited my course on Magic in the Middle Ages.  Theitic is a natural scholar, and he is also the archivist and historian for the NECTW. He is also Elizabeth Pepper’s literary heir, and he continues to publish The Witches’ Almanac, which Pepper founded with John Wilcock in 1971.

While I was an active professor at a research university, I felt myself constrained not to take any oath of secrecy or confidentiality that would keep me from shedding light on the sources for my research, so I worked with the history of this Tradition exclusively from material that Gwen Thompson herself had published, or that was otherwise not oath-bound. As for future work on Thompson’s family and their esoteric interests, we shall see. Theitic has recently published an article about our collaboration in the latest issue of Michael Howard’s The Cauldron (no. 148), which might be of interest to your readers.

I certainly plan to continue my research on the various kinds of pre-Gardnerian (or non-Gardnerian) Witchcraft in the United States. I am particularly interested in how women devised or invented Witchcrafts of their own, usually as a way to empower themselves, between the years 1860 and 1960. This happened more commonly than one might think. (Something similar was probably happening in the United Kingdom during the same decades.) In general, these women relied on popular books on the history of magic and witchcraft, on fiction about Witches and magicians, and on folklore (both in published form and in living oral tradition), as they invented Witchcrafts for themselves.

The earliest such woman of whom I am aware was the redoubtable Emma Hardinge Britten (1823-1899), one of the founding members of the Theosophical Society, but also a well-known, influential Spiritualist medium and lecturer with a large following on both sides of the Atlantic. Hardinge Britten repeatedly asserted that there was no difference at all between a medium, a magician or practical occultist, and a Witch: all of them had the same rare (usually inborn) special abilities, and all of them drew their power from the same sources. She was also the editor and partial author of two famous (and quite controversial) books published in 1876: Art Magic; or, Mundane, Sub-Mundane and Super-Mundane Spiritism, and Ghost Land; or, Researches into the Mysteries of Occultism. (It is worth noting that Doreen Valiente cites Art Magic in one of her early works, and she clearly learned from it.) In 2001 I published a monograph on Hardinge Britten as a representative of the “magical wing” of Spiritualism, in which this question is explored more fully: The Unseen Worlds of Emma Hardinge Britten: Some Chapters in the History of Western Occultism (Theosophical History, Occasional Papers, volume IX).

Other such women in the United States are, on the whole, less well documented than Hardinge Britten. Many of them worked as solitaries, practicing Witchcrafts of their own invention for their own empowerment, without any thought of handing their Craft down to the next generation. Documented cases include Leslyn Macdonald (1904-1981), who was married to Robert A. Heinlein from 1932 to 1947, and Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), author of the chilling short story, “The Lottery” (1948).

Somewhat less well documented is a circle of women operating as a “coven of witches” within the Order of the Magi, an esoteric order founded by Olney H. Richmond (1844-1920). Most of the little we know about this circle comes to us through a Chicago dealer in occult books, Donald G. Nelson, and from him through John M. Hansen. A second circle of Witches, in northern Michigan, is known only from the reminiscences of the late Marion Kuclo, or “Gundella” (1930-1993), who had been initiated into the circle by a relative of hers when she turned 18. To judge by a number of hints in Kuclo’s published writings, this group of witches had been influenced by the magical wing of Spiritualism.

An old friend and colleague of mine, Aidan A. Kelly, has long been trying to track down various early groups of people who called themselves Witches. Thanks to his work, I am convinced that at least a few other such small, private groups existed in the United States well before the 1950s, as well as a number of solitaries.

[EDW] In recent years, you have contributed to the publication of two books written over a century ago by the American folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland. The first is a reissue of Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (Witches Almanac Ltd, 2010), a seminal work in the development of modern Pagan Witchcraft that was first published in 1899 by David Nutt. The second is a previously unpublished manuscript by Leland, The Witchcraft of Dame Darrel of York (Witches Almanac Ltd, 2011), which purports to be the fictitious grimoire of a witch in medieval England. How did you get involved in these projects, and what is it about Leland that so interests you?

[RM] There are three Leland books, actually. In addition to the two you mention, I contributed a substantial introduction to an earlier edition of Aradia, edited by Mario Pazzoglini and others and published by Doug Brown (Phoenix Publishing, 1998).

Mathiesen has contributed to two published editions of Aradia

I first came to Leland’s Aradia by way of Margaret A. Murray’s claim that some of the women and men executed as Witches had actually been adherents of an underground Pagan religion that had somehow survived in secret throughout the Middle Ages. Such a claim interested me as a Medievalist, so I went looking for evidence.  There was, I soon learned, the body of purportedly early texts that Gerald Gardner had passed on to his initiates. As it happened, large parts of this body of texts had already been published in various books, including two by Janet and Stewart Farrar. It did not take much work to show that these texts, in their published forms, could not possibly be older than around 1930, and that they offered no evidence whatever for any greater antiquity of the religion they described. Aidan Kelly, too, had come to similar conclusions on the basis of the same sort of analysis of roughly the same body of texts, and he had gotten access to some valuable unpublished documents also; and we soon compared results. His original text-critical analysis is of high quality, and I regard him as the academic pioneer in this area of research.

Having easily disposed of Gardner’s Book of Shadows texts as evidence for the antiquity of a presumed Medieval Witch Cult, I went looking for other relevant documents, and soon I found Leland’s Aradia, or The Gospel of the Witches (1899). That posed a very different sort of text-critical problem, which required me to travel to the Library of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (in Philadelphia) and the Library of Congress (in Washington, DC). Many of Leland’s own papers have been preserved in these two libraries. I did find evidence there to show how Leland had put together texts from several disparate sources to create the work that he published in 1899.

In the Library of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania I was also shown, to my surprise and delight, Leland’s wonderful unpublished jeu d’ésprit, The Witchcraft of Dame Darrel of York. This manuscript is everything that a true Book of Shadows should have been—the myths, magic and secrets of Traditional Witchcraft—but that Gardner’s failed to be. It was a genuine work of art in its appearance, and also in its content, and I was deeply moved as I read it. And, of course, it was definitely not a copy of some earlier, lost book. Rather, it was clearly the product of Leland’s own mind, which was well stocked with the folklore and traditions of magic, and it strongly reflected Leland’s own interests and predilections. I am more proud of this edition than I am of any of my professional academic publications.

[EDW] Having been involved in the field for at least two decades now, it would be interesting to hear your views on the present state of the academic study of magic and esotericism, and on the direction and problems that you feel it might face in the coming decades?

[RM] It seems to me that colleges and universities, at least in the United States, are no longer governed by scholars and scientists, but have fallen into the hands of businessmen and corporate leaders, who give only lip service to traditional educational ideals. At present individual academics can still manage, here and there, to fly under the radar (so to speak) and offer courses in esoteric subjects. But I see very little future for the academic study of magic and esotericism in the United States as an established field during the next few decades, for political and economic reasons, not for scholarly ones. Similarly, I see only a meagre future for a number of well-established fields within the humanities, especially those requiring a mastery of European languages other than English or Spanish.

Further down the road, it is harder to say. I worry that hard times might lie ahead, rather like those predicted by Oswald Spengler in his Decline of the West. There is, I think, a significant possibility that the entire economy of the United States might crash and burn sometime within the next fifty years, and that the country’s inherited political institutions, if they fail to manage so great a crisis, will lose all credibility and legitimacy. In that event, universities and their libraries may well be treated as harshly in the United States as monasteries and their libraries were treated in England during the reign of King Henry VIII. If that is the future we face, then our problem will not be how to ensure that our field of study continues to prosper in the academic world, but how to rescue what we can and keep it safe through a coming new Dark Age.

I do hope I will be proven wrong, that I am worrying needlessly. Time will tell, only time . . .

[EDW] On behalf of all my readers, I offer Dr. Mathiesen a massive thank you for giving this insightful and informative interview to Albion Calling, and wish him all the best in future.