Saturday 9 February 2013

An Interview with Dr. Nevill Drury

Today I’m interviewing Dr. Nevill Drury, a man who requires little introduction for those acquainted with the contemporary Pagan and occult scenes. The author of over sixty books dealing with a diverse array of topics, from the artwork of Indigenous Australians to practical Neo-Shamanism, his work has been translated into eighteen languages and counting. Born in England, he has spent most of his life in Australia, where he received his BA from the University of Sydney in 1968. As well as being a writer, his varied career has seen him work in high schools, government administration, television, and (from 1976 to 2000) in the publishing industry. He obtained his MA honours degree in anthropology from Macquarie University in 1980 and a PhD, based on his research into the occult beliefs and practices of the artist Rosaleen Norton, from the University of Newcastle, New South Wales in 2008. Since then, he has published prolifically in peer-reviewed outlets and produced several books and edited volumes on Western esoteric traditions. I ask him about the journey he took to get to where he is now, his latest projects, and the perils of publishing.

[EDW] You have the distinction of having been born in Hastings, southern England, in 1947, which I am sure you are aware was the very same town and year which witnessed the death of Aleister Crowley. Aged nine you moved all the way to Australia, where you have lived since, something which I can only imagine must have been a significant transition in your life. Did you feel that the environment of Australia affected your spiritual beliefs in any way, and how did you first come to develop your interest in esotericism?

[ND] I grew up in a family that had a Theosophical orientation. My father had been an officer in the Indian Army during World War Two and was deeply interested in Eastern mysticism and the ‘perennial tradition,’ and my grandmother had several books by Madame Blavatsky, Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater – some of which later found their way onto our bookshelves in Australia. These books were part of the spiritual culture of my family, although I myself was never especially drawn to Theosophy per se and found the notions of ‘root races’ and discarnate Mahatmas quite ridiculous. As a family we migrated to Sydney in 1957 when I was nine years old and when I was still a teenager I came across The Dawn of Magic by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. I found this book inspirational, although I realize now that it contains many errors and is, in fact, quite unreliable. Nevertheless it was the first time I had heard of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the mystical fiction of the Welsh novelist Arthur Machen – and that, by itself, offered a pathway into the Western Esoteric Tradition. In 1968, at Sydney University, I met Stephen Skinner and he introduced me to the study of the Kabbalah. After we wrote our first book together – The Search for Abraxas, published in London in 1972 –Stephen moved to Britain and became well known in London esoteric circles – he now lives in Singapore and we have kept in touch over the years. At University we were both attracted to the emergent international counterculture and, I think, were deeply influenced by it. Stephen was much more attracted to Aleister Crowley than I was, however, and I should point out that although I was born in Hastings in 1947 I am definitely not Crowley’s reincarnation – he died in December that year, and I was born in October!

[EDW] You are well known for your work in popularising and propagating Neo-Shamanic, or Western Shamanic ideas in such books as The Shaman and the Magician (1982), Elements of Shamanism (1989) and Sacred Encounters (2003) and you have also written a work of mythic fiction – The Shaman’s Quest (2004; 2012). How did you get involved in this spiritual practice and what made you decide to start writing about it for a wider audience? What do you see as the benefits of shamanistic practices for people living in the Western world today, and how do you respond to critics who oppose the adoption of shamanic practices from indigenous communities by Westerners?

[ND] During the 1970s several of my friends pushed me towards the sort of ceremonial magical practices associated with figures like Aleister Crowley, Israel Regardie and Gareth Knight but although I appreciated their appeal, I am not really a ritualist and this approach didn’t work for me. For as long as I can remember I have been attracted to visionary states of awareness and the study of altered states of consciousness, and like many of my friends I had some transformative experiences in the late 1960s and 1970s using psychedelics. In 1980 I completed my Masters (honours) thesis at Macquarie University on shamanic aspects of modern Western magic, focusing especially on such magical techniques as ‘rising in the planes’ using the Kabbalistic Tree Life and the apparent parallel between visionary Western magic and states of trance in classical shamanism. American anthropologist Dr Michael Harner was the external reader for my Masters thesis and he recommended publication – that’s how The Shaman and the Magician came into existence, although I think I have written much better books since. I met Michael for the first time in person in 1980 at a Transpersonal conference in Melbourne and attended a workshop on shamanic drumming. I found his neo-shamanic techniques really effective and I continued this work on a regular basis with a small group of friends, for several years. Basically, we drummed for each other, made use of Michael’s visualizations (described in his book The Way of the Shaman), and wrote down our experiences after each session. I published my diary in a small book called Vision Quest, released by Prism Press in 1984.

Living at the time in a large modern city, I viewed the neo-shamanic visionary experience as an adjunct to creativity and psychosomatic healing and I still see it in those terms now. After all, Michael Harner’s approach in neo-shamanism was to present the core experiential concepts of indigenous shamanism to a modern Western audience and there were no illusions or deceptions around that. Personally I think the whole notion of appropriation has been greatly overstated – after all, can’t we learn from the traditions of other cultures? And I understand that members of some indigenous groups – specifically the Sami and Inuit – approached Michael Harner to ask for help in restoring shamanic awareness in their respective cultures after sacred knowledge was lost as a result of Christian missionary activity and European colonization. So these sharing processes can flow in both directions. It seems to me that the scholars who object to Michael Harner’s trans-cultural approach have mostly been post-modern deconstructionists who are obsessed with the supposedly unique characteristics of specific ‘shamanisms’ (a dreadful term, in my opinion) and who have lost the ability to think universally. I have little time for them and find both their academic pedantry and their convoluted writing totally boring and unhelpful. I have to admit that for many years, as you say, I was something of a populariser of shamanic themes but I see nothing wrong in writing for a general audience – you reach more people that way. My introductory overview book The Elements of Shamanism is a case in point. In terms of sales it sold over 30,000 copies and was published in ten languages. It remains one of my most successful books. My more recent fictional work – The Shaman’s Quest – is also aimed at the general reader, and I think it is one of my best books. It describes the experiences of four shamans, from North, East, South and West, who journey towards the mythical ‘centre of the world’ where a transformational healing process takes place.

[EDW] Although not directly related to your scholarship or to esotericism, I notice that you were an undergraduate at the University of Sydney in 1968, the year of the famous international student protests. Did you experience any of the “Spirit of 68” in Sydney at the time?

[ND] I was at Sydney University in from 1966 through to 1969 and it was a great time to be a university student. It was a period of political protests and wonderful parties. I wasn’t a student radical at the time although I remember several of my friends and I being involved in a large political rally against the visiting USA president, Lyndon B. Johnson and the State premier, Robert Askin, who wanted to go ‘all the way with LBJ’ in the Vietnam War. I was totally opposed to national conscription and regarded Australia’s attempts to prop up the corrupt regime in South Vietnam as totally misplaced. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t called up for military service.

[EDW] For the documentary that you produced on The Occult Experience (1985), you met with and filmed some of the most prominent figures then active in occult circles, including senior English Wiccans Alex Sanders, Janet Farrar and Stewart Farrar, the American Pagan Margot Adler, and Swiss artist H.R. Giger. Looking back on it now, what was this experience like?

[ND] This was a wonderful experience for me and came on the back of a television series on holistic health that I presented on ABC-TV in the early 1980s. I was approached by Sydney-based documentary-maker Frank Heimans to plan a 90-minute television programme on occult beliefs and practices around the world and Frank managed to raise $350,000 to finance it, which at the time was quite a lot of money. We filmed in Perth, Western Australia, where there were several Wiccan covens and also in the Yanchep caves north of Perth where a group of local enthusiasts carried out rituals based on ancient Egyptian magic – that made for some spectacular visual imagery. We also filmed a group of Sydney-based Christian fundamentalists ‘casting out demons.’ However some of the most spectacular sequences took place overseas. We filmed well known American witch Selena Fox and her close associates conducting a ritual in the snow in Wisconsin; a wonderful, spontaneous ceremonial gathering of radical feminist Goddess worshippers in Oakland, California – including interviews with Z. Budapest and Luisah Teish – and a meeting with Dr Michael Aquino and his wife Lilith, key members of the Left-Hand path Temple of Set in San Francisco. We also filmed a shamanic workshop with Michael Harner and conducted an interview with Margot Adler in New York in the ritual space at the back of Herman Slater’s Magickal Childe bookshop. In Europe we visited visionary artist H.R. Giger at home in Zurich amidst his remarkable, hellish paintings. We also filmed an initiatory sequence with Janet and Stewart Farrar at their coven in Drogheda, north of Dublin, and visited the founders of the Fellowship of Isis at their Jacobite castle in Clonegal. Later we conducted an interview with Alex Sanders at home in Bexhill, Sussex and filmed him invoking an Aztec deity – a somewhat surprising variant on Wicca! – where he nearly set his pants alight with the flaming torches he was holding.

(Note to Ronald Hutton who tried to establish Sanders’ birth-date and writes about it in The Triumph of the Moon: Sanders told me he had frequently lied about his age in the past, understating it by ten years. He was born in 1916, not 1926, and his aged semi-naked body seemed to confirm this fact during filming.) American pagan scholar Chas S. Clifton, who appears not to have realised that the documentary was financed by a commercial television channel that in turn influenced the final film-edit, has described The Occult Experience on his blog-site as ‘thunderingly pretentious and … basically content-free’ but I feel this is both untrue and unfair: after all, many key esoteric figures feature in the film – they speak for themselves and often have very interesting things to say. The documentary won a Bronze Award in the 1985 International Film and Television Festival in New York, so someone must have liked it. Readers of Albion Calling can decide for themselves: it is freely available on my website:

[EDW] You’re probably the world’s foremost authority on Rosaleen Norton (1917–1979), Australia’s homegrown Pagan Witch and occult artist, having first published a biography of her titled Pan’s Daughter (1988) and then produced a PhD on her, resulting in the expanded  volume Homage to Pan (2003). How did you first begin your investigations into this intriguing character, and what is it about Norton’s work that fascinates you personally? You also have another book out, Dark Spirits (2012), comparing Norton’s work with that of London occult artist Austin Osman Spare (1886–1956), whose work is definitely seeing a resurgence of interest, at least in Britain; what is it about his work that appeals?

[ND] I became interested in Austin Spare and Rosaleen Norton (Roie, as she liked to be known) in the 1970s. Both of them fascinated me because they were extraordinary visionary artists whose imagery was deeply grounded in the Western Esoteric tradition. Roie was always more accessible to me because she lived in Australia. I first met her in Sydney’s inner-city suburb of Kings Cross in 1977, while researching my book Inner Visions: Explorations in Magical Consciousness. At the time Roie was living like a recluse in a dark basement flat at the end of a long corridor in an old building in Roslyn Gardens, just down from the centre of Kings Cross in the direction of Rushcutters Bay. She was somewhat frail but still extremely mentally alert, with expressive eyes and a hearty laugh. We talked at that meeting about the god-forms Roie encountered in trance, about her view that Pan was alive in the ‘back-to-Nature’ movement supported by the counterculture, and we also discussed her strong personal bond with animals. Roie told me that she believed most animals had much more integrity than human beings and she also felt that cats, especially, could operate both in the world of normal waking consciousness and in the inner psychic world at the same time. Roie was very much an adventurer – a free spirit – and she liked to fly through the worlds opened to her by her imagination. Her art, of course, reflected this.

Like Rosaleen Norton, Austin Spare was also an outsider who was substantially misunderstood by the public at large. My first contact with Spare’s visionary art came about in 1970, while I was working as a secondary school teacher in rural New South Wales. In the somewhat isolated country town of West Wyalong, 300 miles west of Sydney, I happened upon the first edition of a new part-work magazine titled Man, Myth and Magic and was immediately struck by its dramatic cover – which featured a painting of a supernatural entity by Austin Spare. Keen to find out more about this unfamiliar visionary artist I decided to research his background. At this stage there was no substantial information on him of any kind, with the exception of a very brief introductory essay by Kenneth and Steffi Grant, published in 1961 as one of the Carfax Monographs.

In 1971, having abandoned my brief career as a school-teacher to live instead in London, I obtained a reader’s ticket to the British Museum and was able to read Spare’s self-published books first-hand. As a young man Spare had won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art but his brilliant skills as a figurative artist would soon be overshadowed by his eccentric exploration of visionary trance states, sorcery and sigil magic. His major self-published works – Earth Inferno (1905), A Book of Satyrs (1907) and The Book of Pleasure (Self-Love): the Psychology of Ecstasy (1909-1913) – were clearly not the work of a conventional artist and it was understandable, while also very regrettable, that his creative genius had not been acknowledged in any of the major British art histories.

Excited by the scope of Spare’s vision, I decided to seek out London publishers who might be interested in his art and ideas, and I eventually found my way to the office of occult publisher Neville Spearman Armstrong in Whitfield Street, not far from the Museum. Armstrong’s publishing company, Neville Spearman, was associated at the time with well-known occult writers like Francis King, Trevor Ravenscroft and Erika Cheetham and included publications on modern Western magic, the prophecies of Nostradamus, paranormal research and alchemy. I wasn’t really surprised that Neville Armstrong quickly warmed to the idea of a book describing the magical imagery of Austin Spare but it was equally clear that such a book would also have to be much broader in scope. I returned to Australia and after co-opting Stephen Skinner as my co-author we decided together to produce a book that would explore some of the major themes in the Western esoteric tradition and the philosophies and cosmologies underpinning them. The resulting volume, The Search for Abraxas (1972), included a substantial overview essay on Austin Spare and presented a concise profile of an artist-magician who was largely unknown among devotees of modern Western magic at that time. I think Spare is a major figure in the 20th century Western magical revival and one of its most original thinkers. He has also been acknowledged as a key influence on contemporary Chaos magick.

[EDW] Although for years you have probably been better known for your work on practical esotericism and also for your books on magic and shamanism designed for a popular audience, in recent years you have brought out volumes aimed at a more scholarly readership. What lay behind this decision to give up your job teaching high school kids about English and History, study for a PhD, and embrace the world of academia again?

[ND] Some time around 2006, when I was still teaching in rural New South Wales, I found out that Pan’s Daughter was a featured text in a Pagan Studies course that Dr Marguerite Johnson was teaching at the University of Newcastle. It occurred to me that maybe I could use my existing research on Rosaleen Norton and work it up into a PhD dissertation at Newcastle with Marguerite as my supervisor. That’s how it turned out. The university allowed me to work on my own, away from the campus – I was teaching in the rural town of Leeton at the time – and I completed the PhD in a little less than two years. I think the benefit of the extra study was that it helped me tighten my writing style and document references more specifically than I had in most of my general books. As a result, I think my most recent publications are among my best.

[EDW] You are also known as an important figure in the wider popularisation of artwork produced in Australia, particularly that made by people from indigenous Australian communities. How did you first become involved in this fascinating area, and have you been involved in wider academic and/or esoteric engagement with the continent’s Native peoples?

[ND] For most of my professional life I worked in the Australian book industry – initially as an editor for the local Australian branches of the American publishing houses Harper & Row and Doubleday. In 1981, together with book publisher Geoffrey King and graphic designer Judy Hungerford, I co-founded a publishing company dedicated specifically to Australian contemporary art. At the time Bay Books, an imprint owned by Rupert Murdoch, was the only major competition. However, Bay Books covered only the major artists – figures like Ian Fairweather, Brett Whiteley and Sid Nolan – and there was vast scope to publish the works of significant mid-career artists across the country. This is what we did – initially as limited editions and from 1985 onwards as standard hardcover publications. It soon became obvious, given that we were marketing our publications to schools as well as art collectors, that we should also publish significant Aboriginal artists. We released the first scholarly monograph on an Aboriginal artist – Dr Vivien Johnson’s Art of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri – in 1994, and followed it with publications on Michael Jagamara Nelson, Emily Kngwarreye and Gordon Bennett as well as books on the Aboriginal art of the Utopia and Balgo communities and a reference book on artists of the Western Desert. I visited the artists at Balgo in remote Western Australia, and Utopia, north-east of Alice Springs, and found this a very enriching experience. I would have liked to publish a major work on Rover Thomas – one of the true greats in Aboriginal art – but was unable to get this project off the ground.

[EDW] One of your most recent works is Pathways in Modern Western Magic, an edited volume published by Concrescent Press, one of several new esoteric publishers to have appeared in recent years. Last year I interviewed one of the contributors to the anthology, Dr. Dave Evans; Pathways also includes contributions from scholars like James R. Lewis, Nikki Bado, Thomas Karlsson, Lynne Hume, Robert J. Wallis, Amy Hale and Jenny Blain on topics as disparate as the Dragon Rouge, technoshamanism and emic approaches to fieldwork among magical communities. You of course also provide two essays in the volume, on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Thelemic sex magic respectively. I’d be interested in learning how this project came together, and what role you see for volumes like this – filled with peer-reviewed contributions by academics but not published by a conventional academic press – in the fields of Pagan and Esoteric Studies? Do you see it as a part of the wider academic dissatisfaction with traditional avenues of publication?

[ND] In 2009 I signed a contract with the Dutch scholarly publisher Brill for a multi-authored volume titled A Handbook of Modern Western Magic and the well-known Swedish academic Henrik Bogdan was brought in as co-editor. In addition to the authors you have just mentioned we were also hoping to attract chapters from scholars like Gregory Tillett (writing on ‘Modern Western magic and Theosophy’), Susan Johnston Graf (‘Yeats, creativity and magic’), Thomas Hakl (‘The Fraternitas Saturni’), Jesper Petersen (‘Contemporary Satanic spirituality’), Kennet Granholm (‘Ophidian magick in the Scandinavian Dragon Rouge’), Carole M. Cusack (‘The Discordians’) and Stephen Skinner (‘Magical evocation and Goetia’). Henrik also committed to writing a chapter titled ‘Ritual initiations and spiritual transformation in modern esotericism.’ You can imagine my surprise – and, frankly, anger – when the editorial board rejected the majority of chapters in the submitted anthology. Evidently several of the chapters were insufficiently post-modern and ‘etic,’ lacked a critical analytical edge, or were simply ‘unsuitable’ (too ‘emic’). Several of the authors whose work was rejected had published in the past with university presses and a few even with Brill itself. Following a suggestion from Dr Amy Hale that a new American imprint, Concrescent Press, might be interested in publishing the anthology I wrote to all of the contributors and explained the situation. Some authors whom I have listed above wrote back and said that their university contracts precluded them from publishing with little-known publishers but many were willing to go ahead and publish with the small independent Californian publishing house. (Interestingly, the publisher at Concrescent is Sam Webster, who is currently studying under Ronald Hutton at the University of Bristol – so there is an Anglo-American connection.)

At Concrescent Press the manuscripts were peer-reviewed by a selection of American academics and a new anthology assembled. I felt that the revised selection was still reasonably coherent but there were a couple of obvious gaps so I requested a chapter on the Dragon Rouge from the Order’s founder, Thomas Karlsson, a chapter on cybermagic from Libuše Martínková, a Czech researcher whom I contacted via the Internet, and an ‘insider’ account of the Temple of Set from former High Priest, Don Webb. Concrescent Press published Pathways in Modern Western Magic in September 2012 and naturally I hope it goes well for them. I am sure this new press will attract a range of academic submissions in the future. The focus of Concrescent Press is on esoteric studies and the Western magical traditions.

[EDW] In your introduction to Pathways in Modern Western Magic, you emphasise the importance of emic, or “insider” perspectives in the study of contemporary esotericism, and I’d be interested to hear if you had any thoughts on the recent criticism of the over-reliance on emic approaches within Pagan Studies made by Danish Religious Studies scholar Markus Altena Davidsen in the Method and Theory in the Study of Religion journal? His critique primarily focused on another edited volume that you contributed to, the hefty Handbook of Contemporary Paganism (Brill, 2008), and this whole debate looks set to become a bit of a theoretical battleground in ensuing years.

[ND] I have just read Markus Davidsen’s critique of ‘pagan scholarship’ – with all his references to the alleged shortcomings associated with so-called ‘insider perspectives’ – and I have to say I find his approach totally misguided. After all, where do authentic religious and magical experiences actually originate? The answer can be found by exploring the psyches, or ‘consciousness’ of the practitioners and devotees themselves. If we move beyond the analysis of belief systems to the actual essence of religion and magic we often find ourselves entering a domain characterised by profoundly transformative spiritual experiences. These are experiences associated with altered states of consciousness, not intellectual conceptual frameworks imposed by theoreticians at a distance. So is it not indeed fortunate that there are several notable practitioner-academics who are able to apply their scholarly knowledge in defining, describing and referencing these experiences? Isn’t that what ‘religious studies’ is fundamentally about? Davidsen’s insistence that religious studies as an academic discipline has to be defined by imposed theoretical frameworks and scientific perspectives seems to me to miss the point entirely. Here is a scholar who sounds like he is more in love with the footnote than the main narrative.

By way of contrast, as I made clear in my Introduction to Pathways in Modern Western Magic, I am all in favour of emically-oriented scholarly discourse and I think it is deeply insulting to describe it as ‘ignorant.’ It comes as no surprise that many of the etically oriented publications that Davidsen is obviously in awe of so frequently come across as jargon-bound, ponderously analytical, and sterile. So often these publications are for scholars writing simply for their colleagues and, in my opinion, they are ultimately of little lasting value. As for my own chapter in the Brill Handbook of Contemporary Paganism, I have to no desire whatever to follow Davidsen’s advice and engage in ‘minimal reinterpretation’ in order to make it ‘commensurable with the critical-naturalist paradigm’ – as a historian (my PhD is in Humanities) I have simply presented the material as accurately and lucidly as I can, and I am sure many other writers contributing to the anthology would feel the same way.

[EDW] Also of note are two other recent publications of yours. The first, Stealing Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Modern Western Magic (2011) has been brought out by Oxford University Press and offers a scholarly overview and introduction to this particular area. The second, a volume you have co-authored with Dr Lynne Hume titled The Varieties of Magical Experience, has just been published in the United States by Praeger. Aside from these, are there any more academic projects on the horizon that we should be keeping our eyes out for?

[ND] I have no plans right now for any new publications on the scale of these two books. Stealing Fire from Heaven was my attempt at a concise historical overview of the modern magical revival, commencing effectively with the hugely influential late-19th century Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and continuing through to present times. In the case of The Varieties of Magical Experience, I thought it would be a good idea to produce a book that in a sense was a counterpart to William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience although I didn’t feel I could do this all by myself. So I invited Professor Lynne Hume from the University of Queensland to be my co-author. Lynne is an anthropologist and has also studied paganism in some detail, so she wrote the chapters on indigenous magic, sensory awareness and Wicca and I wrote the others. We have never met in person but we managed to work well together on this project. I have to concede that this book is strongly emic and inevitably some scholars won’t like it for that reason. However two of the academics who provided endorsements for the book jacket (both of them scholars I have never met personally) have described it as a ‘classic’ – so that’s a good start.

[EDW] And lastly, because of the many divergent views that arise, I like to ask all of my interviewees where they see the academic fields of Pagan and Esoteric Studies going in the next fifty years or so? Do you share the concerns of another Australian Pagan Studies scholar whom I have interviewed, Caroline Tully, that there is a serious problem arising between academics involved in these fields and anti-intellectual elements within wider esoteric communities?

[ND] I don’t regard the division you mention – between scholars and anti-intellectual practitioners – as the main problem, although I acknowledge that it is somewhat problematical. I think the biggest issue we face is that some scholars will become increasingly fascinated by cross-referencing each other’s jargon – ‘occulture’ is one term that comes to mind – while forgetting that magic and religion are ultimately experiential in nature and should be treated as such.

[EDW] Thank you for taking the time out to undertake this interview, Dr Drury, and I wish you all the best in future!