Friday 19 December 2014

An Interview with Dr. Philip A. Shaw

Today here at Albion Calling I am interviewing the philologist Dr. Philip A. Shaw, a Lecturer in Old English at the University of Leicester with a research interest in Anglo-Saxon paganism and England’s conversion to Christianity. Having written a fascinating PhD thesis that alters the way in which we understand the Anglo-Saxon god Woden, he has since published a book exploring two putative Anglo-Saxon goddesses, Eostre and Hretha. Here he gives us a unique insight into his career and publications which should be of interest to all those with a fascination for the world-views of early medieval England.

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

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

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

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

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

[EDW] In 2007, you published an important article in the Early Medieval Europe journal titled “The Origins of the Theophoric Week in the Germanic Languages.” Based in part on one of the arguments presented in your doctorate, you critically examine how the linguistically Germanic societies of the Early Middle Ages adopted the seven day system that was already present in Southern Europe, and the manner in which they chose to name those days after pre-Christian deities. How did you devise this argument?

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

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

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

[EDW] You’re currently working on a project examining linguistic variation in early Anglo-Saxon England, but given that this blog thematically focuses on religion, I’d like to ask if you if you have any projects on the horizon that explore paganism and the process of Christianisation?

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

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

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

[EDW] Thank you, Philip, for giving us a greater insight into your research - I wish you all the best in future.

Thursday 18 December 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Possible topics could include but are not limited to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Yvonne Salmon FRSA FRGS FRAI

Preceptor, Corpus Christi College

Lecturer, University of Cambridge


James Riley FRSA

Fellow of English

Corpus Christi College

University of Cambridge

Friday 21 November 2014

My reflections on the "Newer Researchers in Folklore Conference", Warburg Institute

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of being invited to attend the “Newer Researchers in Folklore Conference”, organised by The Folklore Society and held at their central London base in the Warburg Institute, Bloomsbury. As many have expressed with some trepidation, all is not well for English folkloristics; while we have seen the University of Chichester open its Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy, the past decade has witnessed the closure of other departments devoted to the field. In the academic sphere, folkloristics is rarely accorded the respect and recognition that it deserves, and indeed in many cases is barely visible and very poorly understood. Further, folklore itself is widely associated with Morris dancers, Maypoles, and all things twee, rather than being understood as encompassing all of the popular beliefs, customs, and traditions of any given society; the "lore of the folk", if you will. Understandably, this sorry state of affairs is one that greatly concerns the Folklore Society, and it is was clear that one of the core purposes behind this conference was to find a way to reverse this decline and inject new life into this fascinating old discipline.

Organised by Dr. Matthew Cheeseman and Dr. Paul Cowdell (the latter of whom could unfortunately not be at the event itself), the one-day conference was also attended by the Society's President, Professor James H. Grayson, as well as its Vice President Robert McDowall and prominent British folklorist Jeremy Harte, while Dr. Caroline Oates kindly dealt with the organisational issues surrounding food and drink. However, these eminent scholars were not to take centre stage, for as its name suggests, the day was devoted to "newer researchers", which in many, although by no means all, cases was a synonym for "younger researchers". Certainly, the majority of us in attendance were either in the midst of our doctoral research or stepping out into the daunting early stages of an academic career. Although I recognised a few familiar faces from earlier folklorist events, this was nevertheless the first time that so many of us in these early stages of academia had been brought together in one place to discuss the field and our role in it.

Our opening keynote speaker was Professor Diane Goldstein, the director of the University of Indiana's Folklore Institute, one of the foremost departments for folkloristics in the United States. In her talk, she outlined the academic opportunities that were open to folklorists in her own part of the world, championing the term "folklorist" as a badge of pride and suggesting that as a discipline, folkloristics can be differentiated from sociology as a result of its ideological bent. Suggesting that better days for folklore studies may well be on the horizon, she provided a number of useful suggestions for how those here in England can galvanise to improve conditions for the discipline and bring it up to the standard present in much of North American and Europe. This was followed by a talk from a representative of publishing company Taylor & Francis, who produce the Folklore Society's peer-reviewed journal, Folklore. As could be expected, some comments were raised regarding the ethical problems of author-financed open access services, something which has attracted a lot of attention, at least in Anglo-American academia, over the past few years.

After lunch, we embarked on a series of presentations, in which we each introduced our research, future plans, and our own relationship to folklore. First up was Gunnella Thorsgeirsdottir, an Icelandic scholar who has recently completed her doctoral research into the folk beliefs and practices surrounding pregnancy and childbearing in Japanese society.  She was followed by Bristol-based independent scholar and journalist Gideon Thomas, who discussed his interests in Anglo-American folk musical traditions. Next was Dr. Will Pooley, a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute of Historical Research who specialises in traditional culture within the Francophone world. He was followed by a scholar with whom I co-organised last year's third "Popular Antiquities: Folklore and Archaeology" conference, Dr. Tina Paphitis, who has recently completed her work on the folklore of archaeological landscapes in Britain. Taking quite a different approach to the study of folklore was Dr. Victoria Newton, who is presently a Research Associate at the Open University; her specialism is in popular beliefs surrounding women's contraception and fertility in contemporary Britain. Next up was Éva Gyöngy Máté, a Hungarian doctoral candidate at the University of Debrecen who has been looking at the mediality of landscape in contemporary Scottish fiction.

Doctoral student Melanie Lovatt proceeded with an introduction to her work with individuals living in old age homes from a perspective rooted in material culture studies. She was followed by independent scholar Alice Little, who outlined her research into both musical instruments in museums and on historical folklore collectors like Percy Manning. French-American doctoral student Nicolas de Bigre proceeded with an outline of his work with immigrant communities in North-East Scotland, focusing on their personal-experience narratives of being an immigrant. Next was Ben Kehoe, whose recent master's degreee thesis examines late nineteenth-century Sicilian popular perceptions of Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Revolution of 1860. Heading back to the U.K., Ceri Houlbrook discussed her approach as a "folklore archaeologist" in analysing the fascinating tradition of coin trees in modern Britain. Social historian Erika Hanna then offered us a discussion of her work in analysing Dublin's Urban Folklore Project, which was carried out from 1979-80. Adopting a very different approach was independent scholar Michelle Griffiths; herself a performance artist, she has been looking for new avenues in which to combine folklore and artistic expression. After I then outlined my own research projects into both Anglo-Saxon belief systems and the contemporary Pagan use of archaeological monuments, paying particular attention to my use of folkloric sources, Cheeseman then rounded the day off with an outline of his doctoral research in the folklore of student life.

The conference provided a fantastic opportunity to bring together newer researchers who are all, in one way or another, embarking on studies within the remit of folkloristics. We were able to meet one another, learn of each other's research, and discuss our shared concerns and obstacles, as well as potential ways of dealing with them. In doing so, it was undoubtedly of great value to the field. However, what became particularly apparent was that few, if any of us, identified solely as a folklorist. Instead, we tended to think of ourselves as scholars of archaeology, history, sociology, or literary studies first and foremost, and as a folklorist second, third, or even fourth. Some, including myself, were even hesitant about labelling ourselves "folklorists"; in part this was because most of us lacked in-depth academic training in the methodologies and theoretical perspectives of folklore studies, but also because there are few if any academic positions in English academia for a self-described folklorist. Conversely, others, not least Professor Goldstein herself, urged us to proudly label our best work as "folklorist", thus hoping that greater academic exposure and impact will result in an improved future for the field. I hope that she's right, and (for better or worse) I will certainly be more comfortable in declaring myself a folklorist in future.

UCL Events' review of my recent Petrie Museum lecture

For those who missed my recent lecture at UCL’s Petrie Museum on the subject of archaeology and occultism in the films of American experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger, you might wish to check out a review here, authored for the UCL Events’ Blog.

Friday 31 October 2014

A Halloween Review: Michael Howard and Daniel Schulke's "Hands of Apostasy: Essays on Traditional Witchcraft" (Three Hands Press, 2014)

Today – October 31st – is a date observed across the Western world as Halloween, a festival with ancient origins which over the years has come to be associated with ghouls, ghosts, and witchery. In honour of this remarkable day, one which seems to bring together fun, frolic, and fear in equal measure, I offer a thematically-appropriate book review here at Albion Calling. Although in the past my reviews have appeared only in academic journals, I have decided to follow the lead of award-winning scholar of Western esotericism Egil Asprem by posting a review directly to my own blog, where it will be available freely to a far wider audience than that normally received by peer-reviewed outlets. My decision to do so was sparked by the publisher's invitation to review one of their recently-released esoteric tomes that fits very much within the remit of one of my primary research interests: the historical development of modern religious Witchcraft in Britain and the West more widely.

Hands of Apostasy: Essays on Traditional Witchcraft
 has been published by Three Hands Press, one of the two publishing arms of the Cultus Sabbati, an occultist “Traditional Witchcraft” group established in the early 1990s by the Essex occultist Andrew D. Chumbley (1967–2004). Chumbley claimed to have been initiated into a number of pre-existing British folk magical traditions, whose teachings formed the partial basis from which he formed the Cultus, before he went on to gain widespread attention within the Western esoteric milieu for authoring a number of particularly influential grimoires, most notably The AzoëtiaQutub, and ONE: The Grimoire of the Golden Toad. In later life, he entered academia as a historian of religion, although tragically died while carrying out his PhD research. Both of the editors of this particular anthology had strong links to Chumbley; Michael Howard was a close personal friend of his, having previously established himself as a well-known figure in the British occult scene for editing and publishing The Cauldron, a popular practitioner-oriented journal devoted to witchcraft, folklore, and paganism, since 1976. The U.S.-based Daniel Schulke, meanwhile, was an initiate of Chumbley's Cultus who took on the mantle of the group's Magister (effectively its leader) after its founder's untimely passing, a position that he retains to this day.

Thus, rather than being the product of a scholarly press, Hands of Apostasy is a tome that has been both edited and published by an occult organisation. In keeping with this, its chapters have been (primarily) written not by “outsider” academics but by occultists themselves, “insider” voices who here discuss the very traditions to which they owe their spiritual allegiance. While I am therefore accustomed to reviewing academic books using the usual benchmarks and standards of academia, here I must attempt to do something different; to review a non-academic work of esotericism from my own perspective as an academic non-esotericist. It would be simply unfair if I were to therefore challenge the contents of this book for being insufficiently academic, because they were never designed to be so in the first place; instead I shall seek to evaluate the varying chapters on their own merits, with critical commentary from my own (somewhat different) position.

The Introduction

In the anonymously authored introduction – which can most probably be attributed either to Mr. Howard or Mr. Schulke, if not both of them – the reader is offered such an insider view of the “Traditional Craft”, or “Old Craft” as it is also often known. Here, it is described as “a distinct body of archaic magical practices in present-day Britain and North America, which despite ties to past milieus of magic also thrive within modern spiritual climes” (9). Emphasising that it is not a singular, monolithic entity, the author(s) state that these groups emerge from “a variety of historical magico-religious streams” but that they typically “operate in secret, with strict means of initiatic succession, and practice sorcery characterized by a dual ethos of healing and harming” (9–10). Following this, we are given a brief introduction to a few of the figures whom they see as central to the public dissemination of knowledge on the Traditional Craft, before an outline is provided into the Luciferian world view which many contemporary Crafters – and in particular the members of the Cultus Sabbati – embrace.

A point that I found particularly interesting was that the author seeks in part to define Traditional Witchcraft by explaining what it is not. To their mind, it is “very different in form, ethos and nature” from the “neo-pagan witchcraft” (10) which was pioneered by the English occultist Gerald Gardner in the 1950s, and which in the Alexandrian milieu of the coming decade came to be emblazoned under the somewhat less incendiary name of “Wicca” (on the etymological development of the word see Doyle White 2010). While I would certainly concur that there are some groups flying the banner of the “Old Craft” whose beliefs and practices do indeed differ greatly from those of Gardnerian Wicca and its offspring – the Cultus Sabbati being perhaps the most prominent example – I do not share the belief that all so-called “Traditional Witches” differ so clearly from Gardner's creation. As I have argued elsewhere (Doyle White 2013), textual evidence for the original theology present in the 1960s coven of Robert Cochrane – a man often treated as the “Traditional Witch” par excellence – depicts a magico-religious tradition that is very much Neopagan in form and content, and that is before one takes into account the compelling evidence that Cochrane himself was also a Gardnerian initiate (see Doyle White 2011). 

Furthermore, it is also evident that the terms “Old Craft” and “Traditional Witchcraft” have come to be embraced by practitioners in various parts of the world whose traditions are quite evidently variants of eclectic Wicca; I am reminded of a passage on page 385 of The Triumph of the Moon in which Professor Ronald Hutton recalls knowing of three covens which established themselves as “Wiccan” in the 1980s, only to switch to declaring themselves practitioners of the “Traditional Craft” in the 1990s. Clearly, for the author of this introduction – as for many Traditional Crafters – the boundaries between Wicca and the Old Craft are, despite a little interaction and mutual influence, comparatively crisp and clear. Etically speaking, I cannot share that view; I see the term “Traditional Craft” as more of a legitimation strategy, a way for certain magico-religious and esoteric groups to hark back to the pre-Gardnerian practices of an older Europe, to a historical “tradition” of witch bottles, cunning folk, and Horse Whisperers, as a means of conjuring up a sense of authenticity, pedigree, and heritage. Some of these groups perhaps do have such roots – Chumbley's Cultus and the Sabbatic Craft it espouses being the most prominent example – but others I suspect owe far more to Gardner's legacy than to those of his antecedents.

The Chapters 

In the coming chapter we are treated to an article by Chumbley himself on the subject of “The Magic of History”, in which he offers a fascinating personal insight into how he saw himself as embodying “a bridging position” (21) between the world of the historian and that of the magician. In doing so, he discusses both the “history of magic” and “magical history”. While the former offers a fairly simple analysis of textual information placed within a chronological framework, the latter does something quite different, instead tapping into a “timeless” zone through which he believed he could communicate via “spirit-discourse” with the shades of long-deceased magicians (20). As he aptly notes however, “such truth-claims [attained from this zone] cannot be presented as historical evidence, however[...] such truth-claims must be respected by scholarship and treated impartially as the beliefs of a given individual or tradition” (20), thus championing methodological agnosticism among scholars of magic. In doing so, he offers us an intriguing theoretical approach to the analysis of living esoteric and magico-religious traditions that warrants greater attention from those of us who are active in this field.

A further aspect of this chapter which I found particularly interesting was Chumbley's suggestion that some of the cunning-folk of mid-to-late nineteenth-century Britain formed together in lodges or covens, and that the descendants of some of these groups have survived to this day, coming to be unified under the banner of “Traditional Witchcraft”. He further suggests that from at least the 1890s, a number of these groups began to actively incorporate elements from the Early Modern iconography of the Witches' Sabbath into their practices. As evidence for this, he comments on his own encounters and experiences with such groups; at the same time, he comments that their secrecy prevents them from opening themselves up to academic scrutiny and study, and that he himself was at times frustrated by this impasse. As he acknowledges, those of us in academia are thus left in a conundrum; (not implausible) claims are being made about nineteenth-century magical practices and their continued survival to this day, but the information that historians require to analyse such claims are being intentionally kept sub rosa. As an academic, I found this a particularly interesting chapter, and feel that it really serves to reiterate what a loss Chumbley was for scholarship in the field of magic.

Chumbley's chapter is followed by a short piece authored by the late American esotericist Douglas McIlwain, in which he lays out his claims to having been initiated into a magico-religious tradition by his great-uncle in 1967 which he himself termed the “Skull and Bones Family Tradition”. As a first-hand testimonial to forms of American folk magic it is truly fascinating but unfortunately – as with so many similar claims – its veracity can (and indeed, from a scholarly perspective, must) be questioned. Remaining in the United States, Corey Thomas Hutcheson then provides us with a comparison of traditional witchcraft lore in the mid-to-southern Appalachians with that of the Ozarks, highlighting how both have identifiable origins in the folk beliefs of Europe but each nevertheless diverged and developed in independent directions prior to being recorded by early twentieth-century folklorists. 

David Rankine then returns us to the Old World to argue that the grimoire tradition of Medieval and Early Modern Europe was influenced in various ways by witchcraft. Although an intriguing subject worthy of further in-depth research, it was unfortunate that Rankine did not explicitly outline what he meant by the term “witchcraft”, seemingly including a wide variety of phenomena – including benevolent folk magical charms – under that category, something which most scholars would critique. A brief piece from the late Cecil Williamson, founder of the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft, is then included, in which he discusses aspects of what he terms “moon-raking rites” in British folk magic. Again, it's very interesting as a document of potential twentieth-century folk practices, but given Williamson's well known habit of bending the truth, such claims have to be taken with a pinch of salt. The anthology then continues with a lengthy chapter from Martin Duffy in which he offers an insider discussion of the esoteric, and often sexual, symbolism of the cauldron. In doing so, he references a wide array of disparate sources, from the iconography of Early Modern diabolical witchcraft to Iron Age archaeology and from the writings of modern Traditional Witches to Afro-Cuban magico-religious practices; this reflects a widespread belief among Traditional Crafters – as among many occultists and esotericists more widely – that there are common magical and occult meanings behind traditions that are otherwise scattered across very different historical and cultural contexts.

Melusine Draco of the Coven of the Scales follows with a discussion of her group's animistic worldview, in which Britain's rural landscape is understood as being populated by an array of genii loci, or spirits of the place, whom she believes can be contacted through Old Craft practices. Asserting that these traditions therefore represent the survival of pre-Christian British shamanism, her claims regarding ley-lines being marked by late prehistoric megaliths seemingly owe more to the mid-twentieth century Earth Mysteries movement than older folk traditions, something that certainly raised the eyebrow of this particular archaeologist. Howard then offers us a historical overview of necromancy – the act of contacting the spirits of the dead – throughout European history, ranging from archaeological interpretations regarding ancestor cults in Neolithic Europe through to Roman, Medieval, and Early Modern textual accounts and on to the necromantic rites of Traditional Witches. In the ensuing chapter, Peter Hamilton-Giles offers an intriguing discussion of the “witching hour”; in a manner echoing the aforementioned Chumbley chapter, he stresses the difference between the historian's perception of time and the magical practitioner's perception of time with its ties to the idea of personal spiritual truth. Gemma Gary of the Cornish Ros An Bucca group follows with her discussion of “The Man in Black”, or Devil, in European witchcraft, in doing so making extensive reference to the accounts of the Early Modern witch trials and subsequent Modern textual and folkloric accounts of magico-religious groups such as the Toad Witches.

We are then presented with a second offering from Chumbley himself, this time on the origins and rationales of modern Witch-cults. Aptly highlighting that there were magico-religious groups operating prior to the emergence of Wicca which termed themselves “Witches” – most notably the Toad Witches and the Zos Kia Cultus of Austin Osman Spare – he proceeds to discuss the origins of Gardnerian Wicca, seemingly accepting the possibility that Gardner had indeed been initiated into a pre-existing New Forest coven, which represented an older tradition of magic, but that the "Father of Wicca" had then gone on to radically alter this tradition according to the witch-cult hypothesis of Margaret Murray. From there, Levannah Morgan provides a beautifully written personal account of her own experiences with the use of a mirror as a magical tool, rooted in the folk magical traditions which she encountered growing up in rural Wales during the 1960s. Heading into the Irish Sea, we then arrive at the Isle of Man, where a collaborative group known only as Manxwytch discusses some examples of accounts of alleged witchcraft and folk magical customs on the island, before suggesting that these exerted some influence on Gardner, who lived on the island in later life. From Europe's north-west to its south-east, we are then offered a chapter on Serbian “traditional witchcraft” from Radomir Ristic which looks in particular at a rite known as “Unchain the Devil”. Although an interesting account of a folk magical practice that apparently still continues in Serbia, I was a little sceptical as to the unproven assertion that it had its origins in “pre-Christian paganism and Gnosticism” (247), something which appears to represent an approach rooted in the discredited doctrine of folkloric survivalism.

From my own perspective, more satisfying is the following chapter, authored by Jimmy Elwing – co-editor of Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism – on the basis of the work conducted for his recent master's thesis at the University of Amsterdam. Devoted to an analysis of Chumbley's work, it discusses how he constructed and legitimised his Sabbatic Craft, before examining the Magister's ideas pertaining to dream-like states of consciousness as a gateway to gnosis. Although other essays have seen publication discussing Chumbley and his work (for instance Morris 2013), Elwing's work here represents one of the very first scholarly examples to do so, and thus will no doubt be of great help for future researchers venturing into this area.

Italian-American Witch Raven Grimassi follows with a discussion of the traditional associations between witches and botanical knowledge, looking in particular at the case of the mandrake root and the connection between witchery and the forest. Switching focus to the Welsh Marshes, Gary St. Michael Nottingham provides a fascinating discussion of surviving examples of local folk magical charms, which are – as he notes – without exception rooted in Christian sources. The penultimate chapter is provided by Schulke himself, and examines conceptions of darkness within Traditional Witchcraft. He notes that in the Sabbatic Craft, darkness is understood as the preserve of ancient spirits, before embarking on a discussion of the role of the nocturnal darkness in many historical conceptions of witchcraft beliefs as well as in other magical traditions such as Thelema. Finally, Lee Morgan offers a really fascinating chapter on the likely influence exerted by nineteenth-century Romanticism on the Traditional Witchcraft movement; as he points out, the Romanticist ethos of viewing Lucifer as a sympathetic figure, adopting a radical stance against conservative society, and embracing an interest in occult practices could certainly have exerted an influence on the British magical milieu of the period. For me, as someone who is really not well acquainted with the lives of figures such as Byron and Shelley, this was something of an eye-opener, and it is hoped that this will prove to be of great use to future scholars embarking on an analysis of the historical development of contemporary Traditional Witchcraft and its nineteenth-century antecedents.

Concluding thoughts

To their credit, it seems apparent that the editors have sought to embrace a fairly diverse spectrum of different approaches on the subject of "Traditional Witchcraft" within this volume; some authors have sought to provide scholarly analyses of the movement and its historical development, while others have instead endeavoured to accumulate information from a wide range of sources which can inspire the practices of contemporary practitioners. Others still have attempted to embrace a highly insider interpretation of particular forms of symbolism, while a few have instead offered very personal descriptions of their own practices and world-views. Alongside such differences in approach, there are also (to my mind) differences in many other ways; some articles are written very clearly, others in a wonderfully poetic manner. Some are evidently a great deal more intellectually sophisticated than those situated around them. Some I deem to be very good, others less so; as an academic whose great interest is in the historical development of these traditions, clearly certain entries are going to appeal more strongly to me, while other readers with very different interests might have views that are very different to my own. 

One point that I feel that I should raise, perhaps a little pedantically, is that there is a great disparity in referencing throughout the volume; when citing a work many of the contributors make reference merely to the author and book's title, whereas those who were academically trained have provided fuller, more satisfying references including places of publication and page numbers. In my opinion, a standardisation of such referencing in the latter manner would have helped the book attain a more unitary feel and would have made further reading a little easier. 

As has come to be expected from Three Hands Press, the quality of the published tome is praiseworthy; a beautifully designed hardback, it contains an array of wonderfully evocative illustrations by Timo Ketola, which fit within the distinctly “dark” artistic aesthetic which has become common within the Traditional Craft milieu. At $58.50 for a standard hardcover and $380 for a special edition, it isn't going to be affordable for everyone (and those are direct-from-publisher prices), but perhaps a cheaper edition might be made available in time; certainly, I can envision there being a fairly wide sector of the esoteric market who would be interested in this volume, making a paperback release potentially financially viable. The tome will be of great interest to anyone who describes themselves as a "Traditional Witch" or who is sympathetic to that particular current of esoteric practice. Many Wiccans might find it an interesting introduction to forms of modern-day religious Witchcraft which differ from their own. Similarly, many academics specialising in both the history of European magical beliefs and/or in the study of Western esotericism will no doubt find it a fascinating read and could use it as source material for further research. I certainly wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to either scholar or practitioner, or indeed (as is increasingly common) to scholar-practitioners.

What to me this book makes abundantly clear is that there is not one singular “Traditional Witchcraft”, but many different traditions which situate themselves under this encompassing rubric. In the pages of Hands of Apostasy, there are various different world-views on display; Draco's depiction of the Old Craft as a survival of pre-Christian shamanism is clearly quite distinct from Chumbley's description of it as a survival of nineteenth-century cunning lodges. I thought it a positive sign that the editors and publishers allowed this to be the case; they could quite easily have chosen to push a Sabbatic Craft-dominated image of the Traditional Craft that eclipsed any and all alternatives. (The only publicly-prominent tradition of the Old Craft that was not represented was the Clan of Tubal Cain, which is the name used by the various groups which trace a pedigree back to Cochrane.) Traditional Witchcraft is a burgeoning and growing movement within the broad current of Western esotericism, one which will likely go from strength to strength over coming years, aided by the publication of volumes such as this one. That being the case, it is hoped that further academics will join the likes of myself and Elwing in examining this phenomenon, studying its beliefs and practices, and in particular its early development, so that hopefully we can develop an accurate and nuanced understanding of how today's Traditional Witchcraft emerged from the folk magical traditions of yesteryear. 


Doyle White, Ethan. 2010. “The Meaning of 'Wicca': A Study in Etymology, History and Pagan Politics.” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 185–207.

Doyle White, Ethan. 2011. “Robert Cochrane and the Gardnerian Craft: Feuds, Secrets and Mysteries in Contemporary British Witchcraft.” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 33–52.

Doyle White, Ethan. 2013. “An Elusive Roebuck: Luciferianism and Paganism in Robert Cochrane's Witchcraft.” Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 75–101.

Hutton, Ronald. 1999. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morris, Anne. 2013. “But to Assist the Soul's Interior Revolution: The Art of Andrew Chumbley, the Cult of the Divine Artist, and Aspects of the Sabbatic Craft”, in Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold, ed. Serpent Songs: An Anthology of Traditional Craft. pp. 173–187. Location not specified: Scarlet Imprint.


Thursday 25 September 2014

Request from Dmitry Galtsin

Head honcho of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies and the face behind the Letter from Hardscrabble Creek blog, Chas S. Clifton - whom I interviewed here back in December 2012 - has just asked me to pass on this link to an indiegogo appeal from Dmitry Galtsin, a researcher in the Rare Books Department of the Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Galtsin has had a paper on “The Divine Feminine in the Silver Age of Russian Culture and Beyond” accepted by the American Academy of Religion for their annual conference, which is due to take place in San Diego, California in November. Unfortunately, Galtsin finds himself unable to pay the $1300 to cover his expenses, and is hoping that sympathetic people across the world will help contribute to this sum. Although scholars of Pagan studies on the whole don’t seem to be a particularly wealthy bunch, they should nevertheless recognise the importance of building a dialogue between scholars operating in the Western world and their counterparts in Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation, in order to better understand and appreciate the growing multiplicity that exists within contemporary Paganism. Arguably this is even more important in the current climate of growing tensions between NATO and Russia.

Friday 19 September 2014

An Interview with Dr. Dylan Burns

A few months ago I attended the “New Antiquities” conference at the Free University of Berlin, co-organised by Dr. Dylan Burns (see his profile), who has kindly agreed to be this month’s interviewee here at Albion Calling. Currently a research associate at Leipzig University in Germany, Dr. Burns is a specialist in the ancient religions that we now call Gnosticism, having previously received a PhD on the subject from Yale University. As well as having produced a variety of research articles on the subject, his first book, Apocalypse of the Alien God, has recently been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Furthermore, he is a co-director and founding member of the Network for the Study of Ancient Esotericism and takes an active interest in contemporary religious usages of ancient Gnostic texts. Here, he talks about his life and career, and gives us an insight into a fascinating area of study that I must admit to knowing very little about.

EDW: Born in the city of Rochester, New York, you were then raised in Jacksonville, Florida and Boulder, Colorado by Zen Buddhist parents. This being the case, I’d like to ask what the formative influences were that led to you becoming an academic specialist in religious studies and focusing your research on Gnosticism?

My parents met as very serious students of the early wave of Sanbo-Kyodan Zen that was transplanted to the United States in the 1960s. It is a structured, hierarchical, and patriarchal lay tradition, but also emphasizes independence, particularly as a path to powerful experiences of personal insight (kenshō). For many years I thought Zen had little effect on my upbringing. Yet when I was 25, I read a monastic text in Coptic—the Rules of Pachomius, I believe—and it hit me: “hey! These people are just like my parents!” So it was through my study of Christian monasticism that I realized that monastic elements of Zen had formed the contours of our home life. Yet I have also been circumambulating the fringes of Judaism and Christianity as long as I can remember: My mother is of Jewish ethnicity (her father fled Germany in 1938) and all my maternal aunts and cousins are practicing Jews. On the other hand, I attended Christian elementary schools as a boy, so I had to learn to pray, sing hymns at chapel, and, of course, read and discuss the Bible.

As a teenager in Boulder, Colorado, I devoted myself to learning about East Asian languages and literature, especially Japanese. Yet when I got to college, and I was forced to drop my Japanese course, due to a chance (providential?) scheduling conflict. The only class I could fit into the newly-empty slot was “Worlds of Early Christianity,” a topic in which I thought I had no interest whatsoever. At the end of the second week, the lecture on the Fourth Gospel segued into the Apocryphon of John and the Gnostic texts discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. It completely blew my mind. I walked out of that hall and knew that I wanted to study Gnosticism. To my parents’ horror, I quit Japanese, and began studying Greek, German, and topics in Religious Studies. They’ve forgiven me, not least because Gnosticism, in the words of Dr. Michael Kaler, was like a “paranoid Buddhism”—although I would say “paranoid Zen”! It was a school of thought that arose within a deeply hierarchical and patriarchal tradition, but seems to have attracted individuals who distrusted some of these hierarchies, instead emphasizing moments of awareness, and acknowledging the alienation that an insightful human being can experience in this chaotic world. So of course I found myself interested in Gnosticism! It’s a convoluted path to Nag Hammadi, but it’s mine.

EDW: After gaining a BA in religion from Reed College, Portland in 2003, and then an MA in religious studies from the University of Amsterdam in 2004, you went on to gain your PhD in religious studies from Yale University in 2011; what was it that your doctoral research devoted to?

DB: Despite my “conversion” to Gnostic studies, in my Bachelor’s studies I focused on Greek literature and philosophy—particularly a technical, later school of Greek thought often called “Neoplatonism.” In Amsterdam I explored other ancient religious and philosophical currents which are associated with Neoplatonism but do not fit well into our tidy category of “academic” philosophy, such as theurgy, the Hermetic literature, and Gnosticism. Thus I was brought back to the Nag Hammadi texts, which are replete with all kinds of Gnostic, Hermetic, Platonic, and apocalyptic literature. I went to Yale to acquire the requisite training one needs to become a Nag Hammadi specialist, diving into Biblical studies, theology, church history, Roman history, and, of course, languages dead and alive, particularly Coptic (the final stage of ancient Egyptian, in which the Nag Hammadi texts are written) and Greek.

EDW: Although you were born, bred, and (predominantly) educated in the United States, you have since crossed the pond to join us here in Europe, taking up a position at Leipzig University in Germany. How did this international career trajectory come to pass and do you feel that there is a noticeable difference between the academic cultures of the two continents?

DB: I went to Amsterdam for my MA for two reasons: I had been told it was a place where I could pursue my study of Neoplatonism from the standpoint of ancient religions (rather than academic philosophy), and because, at the time (2003), it was very affordable indeed when compared to American MA programs. There and later, in my doctoral studies, I noticed that scholars from the Continent had a distinct advantage over most Anglophones in terms of their mastery of research languages, especially the ancient ones we need to understand our primary sources. I figured the best way to overcome my linguistic failings was to spend some time living and working abroad. Between my time in the Netherlands and then as an exchange student in Heidelberg, Germany (2009–10), I found I enjoyed many aspects of daily life in Europe, and I forged many strong friendships throughout Central and Northern Europe. So when I finished my doctoral studies in 2011, I was very happy to take up European postdoctoral work, first in Copenhagen and now in Leipzig.

There are so many differences between academic lives on the two sides of the pond, and within Europe itself. Each nation’s academic culture has its advantages and disadvantages. Many of the clichés are true: teaching is increasingly all-important in the USA, while technical skills and research are generally prized more in Europe; hierarchy is generally a bigger deal on the Continent, while American professors are very often on a first-name basis with their students and colleagues. Unfortunately, the serious problems plaguing academic culture are universal. Wherever you go, humanities are being defunded, and long-term positions in the university are increasingly hard to find. Nobody is really quite sure what the “right” career path looks like anymore. Here a larger socioeconomic difference between Europe and the USA must be noted: strong social welfare systems mitigate the risk of pursuing a career in the humanities, just as with art and music. If your postdoc or adjunct position leaves you out in the cold, you’re in less trouble here than there.

EDW: Earlier this year, the University of Pennsylvania Press brought out your first solo book, Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism. Could you tell us more about this project and how you came to write it?

DB: Even during my BA years I was interested in the relationship between myth and philosophy—more specifically, of philosophizing through narrative. Later, I read about the so-called “Platonizing” Sethian apocalypses of Nag Hammadi—texts that use the genre and literary traditions of Jewish apocalypses (i.e., revelatory narratives like Daniel or 1 Enoch), but whose content is replete with the jargon and conceptual framework of later Platonism (what is often called “Neoplatonism”). This is a sui generis literature that at once tastes intensely of two worlds of thought mutually exclusive for most scholars: technical Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian pseudepigrapha. I wanted to understand why on earth someone would write a “Platonizing” apocalypse. In Apocalypse of the Alien God, I offer an answer to this question, and evaluate the significance of this rather bizarre literature for the history of philosophy and religion—and they are significant, as these texts contributed enormously to the “parting of the ways” between Christian and non-Christian (or “Pagan,” if you will) Platonists. After the “Platonizing” apocalypses circulated in a third-century philosophical seminar and caused a fuss, non-Christian Platonists came to distinguish themselves entirely from their Christian counterparts both on philosophical grounds and as a social enterprise. In terms of intellectual history, I argue, this is when Pagan and Christian worldviews split for good. Conversely, this Sethian literature belongs to a distinct Gnostic literary tradition whose origins and contours I call into question, particularly regarding its relationship to Jewish mystical literature. So these “Platonizing” apocalypses are interesting for historians of Judaism, as well.

EDW: You have also looked to some extent at some of the modern movements which are sometimes covered under the broad category of “Neo-Gnosticism”, publishing an article examining New Age and Neo-Gnostic commentaries on the Gospel of Thomas. Do you have a particular research interest in the Neo-Gnostic movement and how do you see this as relating to the study of ancient Gnosticism?

DB: Neo-Gnosticism (perhaps “contemporary Gnosticism” is a better term for it?) is a great, undiscovered country just crying for doctoral students to map it out. Academic study of it is practically non-existent, although it is beginning to pop up on the radars of scholars in several disciplines, notably New Religious Movements and Western Esotericism. How it relates to the study of ancient Gnosticism is complex. Many of my colleagues in Nag Hammadi Studies are ambivalent about the fact that there exist many people who consume the translations and studies we produce in the service of their personal spiritual edification. The roots of this ambivalence are diverse—some dislike “Neo-Gnosticism” due to their own religious or ideological proclivities, while others distance themselves from popular scholarship in hopes of seeming more technically astute—but it is all very silly, because the popular interest in Gnostic literature (for whatever reason) is one of the primary reasons that Gnosticism is a subject that merits historical study in the first place! Professional scholars with technical knowledge about ancient Gnosticism and Nag Hammadi have enormous potential to contribute to the study of how these ideas and texts are being received and used today. It is my hope that they will use this potential, ideally in concert with their colleagues who work on contemporary religious life. Co-organizing the New Antiquities workshop was an attempt to build a little momentum in that direction.

EDW: What projects are you currently working on, and are there others on the horizon that we should be keeping an eye out for?

DB: Aside from the usual studies on Gnosticism, Nag Hammadi, and the apocalypses, I have three projects in development. One is a book project that I began during my postdoc at the University of Copenhagen, which will deal with the emergence of what I would call a particularly Christian concept of divine providence in the first three centuries CE. Providence is a fascinating concept, because it is used to articulate fundamental philosophical problems of human existence—our experiences of a personal relationship with god, of evil, of free will. I have several studies on this in the pipeline, and hope to publish a book in the next few years. I am also editing two collections of essays. The first is an issue of Aries: Journal for the Study of Esotericism, which will address the problem of “esotericism and antiquity.” It is my hope that the issue will clarify, through case studies, whether or not the term “esotericism” is useful for scholars in ancient studies, and, conversely, what scholars of Western Esotericism can learn from specialists in antiquity. The second collection of essays will be the volume of papers from the New Antiquities conference (discussed below).

EDW: You are a founding member, and current co-director (along with Sarah Veale) of the Network for the Study of Ancient Esotericism (NSEA), one of the various thematic networks that is associated with the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE). What brought about the formation of the NSEA and how did you come to be co-director? Furthermore, what do you see as the importance of its role in encouraging the investigation of ancient esoteric currents like Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, and Hermetism?

DB: “Western Esotericism” as a phenomenon could be largely described as emerging from the modern reception history of a very particular body of ancient Platonic and Gnostic literature, yet very few students of Western Esotericism have taken much time to read this material extensively, much less in the original languages. So NSEA was founded initially as a way to just take stock of who was interested in scholarship on Esotericism but also working on antiquity, and get people connected. This remains one of its two chief purposes. The other purpose came about later, when Dr. Egil Asprem [EDW: who was interviewed here in November 2013] put me in touch with Sarah Veale, a plucky student of the classics with a strong background in web design, and thus was born. The goal for the site is to serve as a research portal to the dizzying array of online tools one can use to study ancient materials associated with “Western Esotericism,” whether we are talking about Gnostic texts, magical papyri, or the Dead Sea Scrolls. My guess is that there are lots of people out there who would like to go a little deeper into these and other subjects, but are a little bewildered as to where to begin, or whose bookmarks are out-of-date—so my hope is that the site gives them a leg up. I certainly learn a lot just by updating it. We also post information about pertinent conferences and publications.

EDW: In June 2014 you co-organised a workshop at the Freie Universität Berlin with Professor Almut-Barbara Renger on the subject of “New Antiquities: Transformations of the Past in the New Age and Beyond.” I was at that conference and have offered my reflections on it elsewhere on my blog. What brought about the decision to organise it and what do you hope that it achieved?

DB: Reception-history of antiquity is Prof. Renger’s specialty, so I was intrigued by this when we first met, given my longstanding interest in the popular reception of the Nag Hammadi literature. I was hoping to gather people working on contemporary alternative religious groups who authorize themselves with reference to ancient Mediterranean religions (e.g., “Neo-Pagans” and “Neo-Gnostics,” amongst others), and to begin a conversation about such phenomena and where they come from. I was happy to discover that many who participated in the workshop also had some (at times strong) background in philology and/or archaeology, which meant that we were often able to get into technical details about the ancient sources themselves even as we discussed how modern practitioners deal with them. Needless to say, I also learned a lot myself, as much regarding the reception of scholarship in archaeology in contemporary Pagan religion, as regarding Neo-Gnosticism. These and related trajectories of research have potential to be very fruitful indeed, so it was—and remains—exciting to pursue them along with the other participants in the workshop.

EDW: I like to end my interviews here at Albion Calling by asking my interviewees where they see the future of their subject heading. That being the case, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the future of research into Gnosticism and the Western esotericism(s) of antiquity, as well as the study of “Neo-Gnosticisms”?

DB: We are witnessing the early stages of a growth spurt in each of these subfields. “Gnosticism” as a field suffered something of a “Nag Hammadi hangover” in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, but now there are many, many younger scholars working with the topic with great energy and insight. Old paradigms are being reformulated or overturned outright, even as new texts are being discovered and edited. “Esotericism” in antiquity, meanwhile, is only just becoming something people are talking about, since scholarship on Western Esotericism has focused almost entirely on the Renaissance and beyond. Yet it is my sense that there is a great interest amongst scholars dealing with ancient sources in formulating an efficacious use for the term “esoteric” to deal with some of the sources we work on which just happen to be instrumental to the development of the currents that some would say fall under the rubric of “Esotericism” today. Conversely, others are interested in showing why “esotericism” is the wrong word to talk about certain ancient currents sometimes referred to as “esoteric.” So that conversation is just starting up. As for “Neo-Gnosticism,” the sky’s the limit, but if it is to really take off, I imagine we would have to see some serious collaborative work between the historians of antiquity, on the one hand, and anthropologists and historians of new religions movements, on the other. In the words of David St. Hubbins: And why not?

EDW: Thank you Dylan for this wonderful interview; I wish you all the best in future.

Monday 25 August 2014

An Interview with Professor Timothy Insoll

This week here at Albion Calling I am very fortunate to have with me an archaeologist whose work on the study of religion and ritual has long inspired me, Professor Timothy Insoll of the University of Manchester. Insoll’s regional focus has been on Bahrain and Western Africa, where he has been involved in excavations in both Mali and Ghana; more recently he has turned his attentions to the eastern side of the continent to undertake investigations in Ethiopia. In doing so, he has investigated not only the “indigenous” pre-Christian and pre-Islamic religious systems and ritual practices of the continent but also the later archaeology of Islam, on the subject of which he is a well-known expert. In this interview, we discuss his career and research, some of his many important publications, and archaeology’s role in the scholarly investigation and interpretation of ritual and religion.

EDW: Having attained an undergraduate degree from the University of Sheffield in 1992, you went on to complete your doctoral research and then a research fellowship at St. John’s College, Cambridge, for which you looked at the archaeology of Gao, capital of the Songhai Empire in West Africa, and wrote The Archaeology of Islam. In 1998 you were appointed lecturer in archaeology at the University of Manchester, becoming a senior lecturer and then a reader in 2004; you were subsequently awarded a personal chair in 2005, and have remained there ever since. What were the formative influences that led you in the direction of archaeology and academia, and what inspired you to focus your research on both the archaeology of Sub-Saharan Africa and the archaeology of ritual and religion to start with ?

TI: When I was a small boy I confused dinosaurs and archaeology so that was probably my formative influence, though I rectified this after writing to the Young Archaeologists Club and getting a nice encouraging response from Kate Pretty. Many of my relatives also grew up or served abroad during the time of the British Empire so this must also have influenced me in the direction of non-European archaeology, and when I started my undergraduate studies I realised that sub-Saharan Africa was both one of the least archaeologically investigated parts of the world, and also the most interesting. So this sealed it, so to speak, geographically – though I am also interested in Arabia and India. Why ritual and religion? Because it too is fascinating and again offered opportunities to explore diverse material encompassing the whole gamut of archaeology from seeds to landscapes. I was also brought up as a Catholic so religion was always a part of my life.

EDW: Something that I have found particularly interesting has been your recent work with the University of Ghana’s Benjamin Kankpeyeng and Samuel Nkumbaan in studying the Koma Mounds of Northern Ghana. As part of this, in 2010–11 you excavated a number of figurines that were interned along with human remains in mounds dating to 600–1200 CE; these have been identified as serving a religious function as “ancestral” figurines. Could you give us a bit of background on this fascinating project, and what do you see as the place of archaeology in understanding the pre- and non-Islamic indigenous belief systems of Western Africa?

TI: Ben Kankpeyeng has run the Koma Land project for a number of years. He invited me to participate after we had worked together in the Tong Hills on shrines, sacrifice and ritual practice there from both ethnographic and archaeological perspectives. The Koma material was in many ways more challenging as it lacked the ethnographic dimension for the people that made the clay figurines you referred to have disappeared. So it is strictly ‘archaeological’, there are no analogies that can be drawn upon in the same way that we could in using Talensi practices to begin to understand aspects of the Tong Hills archaeology. Because most indigenous religions were within pre-literate contexts, archaeology is crucial for understanding their history and development, and change over time. The latter is particularly significant as there has been a tendency to view African indigenous religions as timeless, because of the dominance of social anthropology sources. Whereas, archaeology indicates that there could be both foundational stability as well as change as past peoples reacted to different events, circumstances, opportunities, and materiality.

We tried exploring this in an exhibition on the Koma figurines, “Fragmentary Ancestors”, that was held in Manchester Museum and which has now transferred to the National Museum in Accra. Curating this permitted the interrogation of the role of the figurines and why people made them for several hundred years between c. AD 600 – 1400. Many were purposefully broken perhaps because they were intimately linked to personhood of varied forms. The resources of Manchester University are also allowing us to look inside the figurines through CT scanning and to complete DNA analysis – work in progress.

EDW: You've also established yourself as one of the world’s foremost specialists in the archaeology of Islam, having written The Archaeology of Islam (Blackwell, 1999) and The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2003). This is a vast and fascinating area of enquiry, so it would be interesting to hear how you set about embarking on researching this ambitious topic? 

TI: Islamic archaeology was then largely, but not entirely, rooted in Art History and old-fashioned notions of data collection without interpretation. As an adjunct research focus was often upon the upper echelons of society, rulers, urban elites, palaces and cities. Social archaeology was lacking, as was a more representative Islamic archaeology that acknowledged the diversity of the Muslim community. Hence I wrote The Archaeology of Islam as a way to begin to redress this, slightly provocative perhaps, but Ian Hodder’s “Social Archaeology” series was then blossoming under Blackwell, and I aimed the book at that. For three years during my Research Fellowship in Cambridge I got to read on relevant archaeology and anthropology, as well as travel extensively collecting material. I think archaeology focused on Islam is now changing. New journals such as the Journal of Islamic Archaeology have appeared that have a broader more inclusive and theoretically aware focus, and material routinely analysed elsewhere, such as faunal remains, is now not discarded but treated, as it should be, as a source of information on past lifeways.

EDW: You’ve also done a lot of work on the archaeology of Bahrain, having co-authored An Archaeological Guide to Bahrain with Rachel Maclean (Archaeopress, 2011) and The Land of Enki in the Islamic Era (Kegal Paul, 2005). You are currently involved in a project compiling the island’s Islamic funerary inscriptions, and another studying the Bilad al-Qadim area in anticipation of the construction of a new visitor centre at the Al-Khamic Mosque. How did you come to be involved in the archaeology of Bahrain and what is it that so intrigues you about it?

TI: Bahrain allowed me to put into practice some of the theoretical points made in The Archaeology of Islam and to provide a comparison with material I had collected in Mali and Eritrea, as discussed in The Archaeology of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. But it also snowballed, as research has a tendency to do and Rachel (my wife) and I have had the opportunity to curate a new museum at the site we worked at in Bahrain. This has given us opportunities to explore how to present and interpret archaeology in a rapidly changing society that is composed of both Sunni and Shi’a, as well as non-Muslims, and to involve the local community in the process. It has been fascinating, and yes the archaeology of Bahrain is intriguing for there is so much within this small island sitting in the Arabian Gulf. There are literally layers upon layers of archaeology around and on which modern life has to sit. Though I do also sometimes worry at the pace at which the archaeology is being lost as development proceeds at an astounding pace.

EDW: You’ve just come back from an excavation in Ethiopia; could you tell us about the project that you have got going on over there?

TI: The Ethiopia project is in its early stages. Last year I was collecting with a former PhD student of mine, Tim Clack, data on how the Mursi ethno-linguistic group in the southwest physically modify their cattle through branding and horn shaping. This has helped in interpreting images in Ethiopian rock art of similarly modified cattle that in the past were either neglected or described as abstract. The results of this research are published in the next issue of Antiquity. This summer’s fieldwork was in eastern Ethiopia and involved test-excavation and survey of abandoned urban sites, burial tumuli, and in the city of Harar to begin to explore themes such as myth, ethnicity and identity and how it links to Islamisation, and trade and identity.

EDW: Your book Archaeology, Ritual, Religion (Routledge, 2004) is the definitive textbook on the subject of the archaeology of religion and ritual; ten years on from its first publication it still constitutes an absolute must-read for anyone getting into the subject. What made you decide to author it and what do you hope that it has achieved?

TI: Thank you. Archaeology, Ritual, Religion was a book that I had to write and was the easiest so far to do because I just sat down and wrote it. I wish I could say that other books were that enjoyable or easy to write, but I can’t – they have been hard work! I hope that it has shown that we cannot neglect religion and ritual in archaeological contexts – or at least the potential for their former existence. I think again archaeology has changed over the past decade and archaeologists (I won’t name names) who then did not acknowledge ‘religion’ or mis-categorised ‘ritual’ now do address both.

EDW: In 2011 Oxford University Press brought out a hefty anthology which you had edited titled The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion. It’s a really valuable volume for the sheer scope of contributions contained within it, from those examining the evidence for ritual behaviour in the Palaeolithic to those dealing with the cultic practices of the Inca and on to the contemporary Pagan uses of archaeological monuments in Europe. What brought about this particular project, and what do you see as the future for endeavours such as this which bring together archaeologists of religion and ritual whose chronological and geographical specialisms vary widely?

TI: Editing that Handbook was a lot of work. I am now editing another, the Oxford Handbook of Prehistoric Figurines. I think there is value in these projects if they are comprehensive enough and if the differing perspectives of the authors are respected and indeed encouraged. No one is ever going to agree and nor should they in dealing with such complex and elusive subjects based on archaeological materials. Having all these different regions, periods, perspectives and specialisms under one cover is valuable for it enables you to realise human ingenuity over time in materialising and conceptualising relationships with ritual, religion, spirituality, the divine. We are also fortunate that OUP is willing to take on such projects and I fear that in a decade from now publishers might be less willing to do so, certainly in a print form.

EDW: The academic field of religious studies has for decades been influenced by anthropology, sociology, and psychology; by comparison, archaeology seems to have exerted very little influence. Do you think that archaeologists are finally having their voice heard among scholars of religion? Furthermore, how do you think that archaeologists of religion and ritual should go about interacting with our colleagues studying these subjects from other disciplinary perspectives?

TI: I do think archaeology is now contributing to religious studies in ways that a few years ago it did not. Journals such as Material Religion actively encourage archaeological contributions, and based upon changes in my correspondence again over the past few years scholars of religion are engaging with archaeologists and realising that we do have something to offer – even if it is only data that they can reinterpret. How should we interact with these colleagues? As equals, but also through not exclusively guarding our material and thinking somehow that because it is archaeology, only archaeologists can interpret it. Think of how we routinely use other sources such as ethnography.

EDW: Have you got any projects or publications on the horizon that we should be keeping an eye out for?

TI: My new book, Material Explorations in African Archaeology, which is in press, also with OUP. This provides an examination of materiality in African archaeology through exploring concepts of material agency and material engagement and entanglement in relation to how these can be manifest via persons, animals, objects, substances, and contexts.

EDW: I always like to end my interviews here at Albion Calling by asking my guest where they think that their field is headed in the coming years and decades. That being the case, I’d like to ask you where you see the archaeology of ritual and religion progressing in future?

TI: A difficult question to answer but I believe that for varied reasons, good and bad, ‘religion’ is much more prominent that it was 10 to 20 years ago. Hence for the archaeology of ritual and religion this could be a good thing in increasing awareness and research, but we do have to respect the right of archaeologists to work on all sorts of sites and to recover and interpret material that can challenge established beliefs and practices.

EDW: Thank you so much, Professor Insoll, for taking the time to give us an insight into your work and views on the archaeology of religion and ritual. I wish you all the best in future.