Sunday 29 November 2015

Some Thoughts on the ASSAP conference, "Seriously Bewitched"

Yesterday I attended (and spoke at) a one-day public conference titled “Seriously Bewitched”, organised by the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomenon (ASSAP) and held on the premises of Goldsmiths, University of London, an academic institution based in southeast London’s New Cross. As its title suggested, the conference was devoted to the subject of witchcraft, both in its historical and contemporary manifestations. Given ASSAP’s remit, the conference was not strictly academic (although there were many academics present), and instead it aimed to reach a much wider audience including quite a number of people who were personally involved in forms of modern religious Witchcraft. This broad church approach undoubtedly had its benefits in bringing together divergent opinions and perspectives in a spirit of dialogue, although at times it also resulted in some vocal disagreement, particularly from attendees who weren’t particularly familiar with the nature of academic scholarship or the realities of what historically constituted “witchcraft”.

The event kicked off with some opening remarks from Professor Chris French, a psychologist based at Goldsmiths who has a particular interest in the critical study of paranormal phenomenon; for me, it was particularly intriguing to finally meet Professor French in the flesh as I remember him being a talking head on television shows about the paranormal when I was a child. He was followed by Deborah Hyde, his successor as editor of The Skeptic magazine, who used her talk to delve into the Roman Catholic Church’s response to Medieval heresy, discussing how that phenomenon impacted on the later witch trials of the Early Modern period. Sticking with those trials, we then had Christian Jensen Romer, a self-professed evangelical Christian, offer a discussion of the witch trials that took place both in Eastern England at the urging of Matthew Hopkins and those that took place in Salem, Massachusetts. Seeking to turn commonly held notions upon their head, he pointed out that many of those most active in carrying out these persecutions were highly educated men working on a rationalist basis – he even compared them, perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek, to ASSAP members – while also noting that it was Puritan preachers who were among the most vocal critics of the trials.

It was my turn after lunch, as I focused on “The New Witches of the West”, looking at the development of Wicca – in both its British Traditional and later Dianic variants – as well as modern Satanism, before exploring quite why many modern day people choose to identify as “witches” when that term is so loaded with historical baggage. Given that I was feeling a little under-the-weather, I chose to read from a script rather than speak without one, however I got a fair bit of positive feedback nevertheless (although I was somewhat lost for words when one audience member started insisting that a secret cabal of Satanists rule the world…). I was followed by Dr. Helen Cornish of Goldsmiths, who discussed the fascinating case of Joan Wytte, “the Fighting Fairy Woman of Bodmin”, whose alleged physical remains had been displayed at Cecil Williamson’s Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall for many years. Returning to the subject of modern Pagan Witchcraft, PhD candidate Charmaine Sonnex then discussed some of her ongoing work on how modern British Pagans (into which she includes British Traditional Wiccans, eclectic solitary Wiccans, and Druids) conduct magic spells and how they believe that such spells work.

Moving into the evening session, the Wiccan High Priestess Bekie Bird provided a biographical overview of her own life, discussing key events in her childhood and adolescence that led her onto the Pagan path, and talking about her beliefs pertaining to magic and spirituality. Finally, independent folklorist Mark Norman ended the day with a talk on what he termed “Traditional Witchcraft” – meaning both historical folk magic and those contemporary esotericists who self-designate as “Traditional Witches” – focusing in particular on how “Traditional Witchcraft” has been presented by Gemma Gary of the Cornish-based coven Ros an Bucca. All in all, it was an interesting day that brought together many interesting people and interesting talks, and my thanks must be extended to its organisers. For those interested, the next themed ASSAP conference, “Seriously Enchanted”, will be devoted to fairy lore and will take place at The Academy, Holiday Inn, in Bristol on 12 March 2016.

Thursday 26 November 2015

An Interview with Dr. Ceri Houlbrook

Today here at Albion Calling we have the archaeologist and folklorist Dr. Ceri Houlbrook with us (if you're not familiar with her work, check out her account here). Having completed her PhD on the subject of coin trees at the University of Manchester back in 2014, she is currently involved in a post-doctoral project examining concealed apotropaic devices in the British Isles and the ways in which they have been dealt with by those who have discovered them. We talk about her research, her new co-edited book, and her views on the intersections between folkloristics and archaeology.

Dr Houlbrook at a love-lock bridge in Prague, Czech Republic

[EDW]: Under the supervision of the archaeologist Professor Tim Insoll (who was interviewed here back in August 2014), you completed your PhD at the University of Manchester in 2014 on the topic of “Coining the Coin-Tree: Contextualising a Contemporary British custom”. Subsequently, you have published a number of research articles on the coin tree phenomenon in such peer-reviewed journals as Folklore, Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, and Post-Medieval Archaeology. What was it that led you to coin trees as an object of enquiry? Could you possibly also provide this blog’s readers with a summary of your research on this subject?

[CH]: Since doing my MA in ‘Constructions of the Sacred, the Holy and the Supernatural’ at Manchester, I’ve been interested in British folk customs – particularly how they survive, and sometimes flourish, in contemporary society. The coin-tree is just one such example of this. Although the custom of inserting coins into trees stretches back to the 1800s (maybe even the 1700s), where it was originally associated with healing rituals, it’s really only been over the last two decades that the practice has spread across the British Isles, with coin-trees popping up in all corners of the country. I was interested in asking why the 1990s and 2000s had seen such a rapid increase in the custom, and in finding out what it means to its modern-day participants. My conclusion: it means whatever its participants want it to mean, and I use coin-trees to demonstrate the malleability of folklore and the mutability of meaning. These allow customs, legends, and lore to survive their transitions into different times and places, by enabling them to adapt.

[EDW]: You are currently a Postdoctoral Research Assistant working as part of a Leverhulme-funded project titled “Inner Lives: Emotions, Identity, and the Supernatural, 1300–1900”, which is based at both the University of East Anglia and the University of Hertfordshire. Could you tell us a little bit more about this exciting new project and what your role entails?

[CH]: As you might have guessed from its title, this project, run by Prof. Malcolm Gaskill, Prof. Owen Davies, and Dr Sophie Page, is broad – both chronologically and thematically. To summarise briefly, we’re interested in examining how people historically have dealt with the cross-overs of emotions (fear, hatred, love), selfhood, and aspects of the supernatural. My strand of the project is entitled ‘The Concealed Revealed’, and I’m looking at the sorts of devices and customs people used to protect their homes from preternatural threats, from concealed shoes and mummified cats to timber markings. As well as cataloguing examples of this from across the British Isles, I’m also interested in considering what happens to them after they’re found; once the concealed has been revealed, so to speak. Are they disposed of, re-concealed, or displayed? And what does that tell us about people today and their own relationships with emotions, identity, and the supernatural?

Coin-tree in Ingleton, Yorkshire.
Image copyright Dr. Houlbrook
[EDW]: Like myself, you’ve been in attendance at the Folklore Society’s Newer Researchers conferences over the past two years and have conducted research that has crossed into the two respective fields of archaeology and folkloristics. Where do you tend to view yourself in relation to these two disciplines, and how well do you think that they work together?

[CH]: Although I’m not a huge fan of labels and pigeonholing myself, if people ask I tend to call myself a ‘folklore archaeologist’. This basically means that I use methodologies from both folklore and archaeology to gain insights into ritual practices and popular beliefs, both historical and contemporary. Take concealed shoes for example. We have no (surviving) written evidence describing the practice and therefore no explanation for why people in the 18th and 19th centuries concealed shoes within the walls, roof spaces, and fireplaces of their homes. Cue folklore archaeology: by considering oral lore surrounding shoes and the materiality of the shoes themselves, together with their liminal locations, we can at least come up with some working theories on this enigmatic practice.

[EDW]: Oxbow Books have recently brought out The Materiality of Magic: An Artifactual Investigation into Ritual Practices and Popular Beliefs, an edited volume that you co-produced with Natalie Armitage. In this volume, you also have a chapter titled “The Wishing-Tree of Isle Maree: The Evolution of a Scottish Folkloric Practice”. Could you elaborate for us on how this particular book came about?

[CH]: In 2012, Natalie Armitage and I organised a panel at the Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference entitled ‘The Materiality of Magic’. We were eager to get both the subject and word of ‘magic’ – seen as something of an academic taboo – back onto the archaeological agenda, and to illustrate how research into ritual practices and popular beliefs benefit from a material culture perspective. We were also eager to demonstrate how prevalent such practices and beliefs are across time and place, and so we invited speakers with a wide range of interest areas, ranging from Bronze Age Europe to modern-day Africa. The session was a great success and in saying that I’m not blowing my own trumpet, but that of the speakers. The fact that the session attracted such a large audience that we needed to move to a larger room is no doubt due to the fantastic papers presented and the interesting debates they sparked. Publishing the session was the logical next step; the themes we discuss and the methodologies we employ are important, so we naturally wanted to reach as large an audience as possible.

[EDW]: Are there any other projects in the pipeline that we should be keeping our eyes out for?

[CH]: My personal interest at the moment is the archaeology and heritage of love-locks. For anyone who doesn’t know what love-locks are, they’re exactly what their names suggest: padlocks employed globally in declarations of love, usually inscribed with a couple’s names and attached to a bridge. I find them fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly, for what they reveal about the malleability of folk customs; love-rituals boast a very long history but they have to adapt in order to survive, and love-locks are the most recent – and arguably the most widespread – manifestation. Secondly, they’re incredibly useful from an archaeological perspective: studying a contemporary custom can inform how we interpret past practices. And thirdly, they reveal a lot about notions (and the subjectivity) of heritage; some cities (e.g. Paris) see love-locks as a nuisance to be discouraged and disposed of, while others (e.g. Cardiff) embrace them as part of their heritage. I’m currently applying for funding to conduct both broader and more in-depth research into this custom, but for now I’m keeping a blog ( and asking anyone with information on, pictures of, and opinions about love-locks to contact me on

[EDW]: Thank you very much Ceri, I wish you all the best with the rest of your Concealed Revealed project!

Saturday 14 November 2015

Thoughts on the Petrie Museum's "Margaret Murray: Witchcraft Theory and the 'Lunatic' Fringe?

Last night, the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology hosted an event titled “Margaret Murray: Witchcraft Theory and the ‘Lunatic’ Fringe”, which – as its name suggests – was devoted to the famous Egyptologist and folklorist who was herself well connected to the Petrie Museum and the man after whom it was named, the archaeologist Flinders Petrie. Although well-respected among scholars of Ancient Egypt, today Murray is perhaps better known as the foremost proponent of the discredited witch-cult theory which proved to be such a significant influence on the burgeoning Pagan religion of Wicca, and it was to this aspect of her life that this event was devoted. Scheduled to take place two weeks after Halloween – and thus within the season of all things witchy – it also fell upon 13th November, thereby marking the 52nd anniversary of Murray’s death.

Accompanied by a specially selected playlist and a palm reader operating amid the cases of Egyptological artefacts, the event was structured around two talks by established London academics. The first talk was provided by Titus Hjelm, a sociologist who teaches at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Having a particular interest in the sociology of religion, he has previously published both a Finnish-language book on Wicca and an English-language paper on Paganism in Finland within the pages of the Journal of Contemporary Religion (I cite the latter in my new book, Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, now available for purchase in Europe). Hjelm provided the audience with a basic outline of Murray’s witch-cult theory and the impact that it had on the burgeoning Wiccan faith; it was the basic stuff for those of us who are already involved in the study of early Wicca, but enlightening for others nonetheless.

Hjelm was followed by Roger Luckhurst, a scholar of English literature at Birkbeck, University of London. Rather than talk about Murray per se, Luckhurst delved into the work of William Seabrook, an American surrealist and author whose prime claim to fame was through introducing the word “zombie” into the English language. Luckhurst dealt in particular with Seabrook’s 1942 book, Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today, and while it wasn’t made completely clear that Murray exerted a strong influence over Seabrook’s understanding of witchcraft – which was more diabolist than pre-Christian – it nevertheless helped to set Murray’s ideas within their wider cultural setting.
The event was incredibly busy – many of us had to sit on the floor in order to hear the speakers – and I overheard a number of Petrie regulars commenting on how they had never seen the museum so crowded. Surely, this stands as a testament to how Murray continues to fascinate people and how she has continuing relevance for many of us today. Not a huge number of her contemporaries could say the same.

Wednesday 16 September 2015

An Interview with Yvonne Aburrow

Previous instalments in this interview series have mostly been with professional academics involved in the study of such topics as witchcraft and contemporary Paganism, but today I’m doing something slightly different. Here I provide an interview with Yvonne Aburrow, a British Wiccan familiar within the country’s Pagan community for publications like The Enchanted Forest (1993) and The Magical Lore of Animals (1999) and who will be known to some outside the community as the figurehead behind the Pagans for Archaeology project which sought to help bridge the gap between Pagans and archaeologists. We talk about the continuing dialogue between these two groups, Aburrow’s own academic education, and the future interaction between practicing Pagans and the academic field of Pagan studies.

[EDW]: You obtained an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spirituality from Bath Spa University, which had one of the only religious studies departments in the UK that actually focused on more “alternative” forms of religiosity such as contemporary Paganism. Did you choose that department specifically, and what was the overall experience of studying there like?

[YA]: I did choose it specifically but it was also very handy that I was living nearby at the time.

The course was excellent (although it could have benefited from more of a focus on discourse analysis in the research methods module). We looked at a number of different contemporary religions including Paganism, but one of the modules was seen through the lens of gender and sexuality, which is something that interests me greatly as an intersectional feminist. For this module I did a study of queer spirituality.

There was also a module on East meets West, which I had hoped would be about how Eastern thought had influenced the occult and Pagan revival – but it was actually mostly about the negative impact of Christianity on the East, especially Sri Lanka – though I was delighted to discover that the Theosophists had helped to restore the local forms of spirituality there. My essay for that module was on the relationship of the Unitarians and the Brahmo Samaj.

For my dissertation, I looked at Pagans’ relationship with science, and found that most Pagans do not view our beliefs as incompatible with science, and most believe that Pagan deities are immanent in the world. The rest of the sample were atheists.

[EDW]: In 2008, you were behind the establishment of a group called “Pagans for Archaeology” in which you sought to challenge those vocal segments of the British Pagan community who were criticising the archaeological establishment over such issues as the excavation of Seahenge and the retention of excavated human remains for further study. The group ran a blog (, held a 2009 conference at the University of Bristol, and currently has almost 15,000 “likes” on Facebook. What brought you to the decision to do this and what do you believe were its successes?

[YA]: I was very unhappy with the idea expressed by some Pagans, mainly Druids, that “respect for the dead” automatically entails reburial. For me, respecting the dead involves finding out and remembering as much as we can about their lives, and celebrating them. Archaeology enables us to do this by reconstructing the lives of ancient people – we can find out what they ate, where they lived, how far they travelled, what diseases they had, how they died – almost everything apart from their names. If you consult ancient texts, there is almost a universal desire to be remembered – and archaeology, especially osteo-archaeology, recovers the memory and stories of the nameless and forgotten, whereas reburial would obliterate their stories and any hope of recovering more information about them.

I hope that archaeologists noticed that there are many Pagans who support archaeology and don’t actually want remains reburied. Pagans for Archaeology also responded to a government consultation about reburial, and encouraged our members to submit individual responses too.

Aburrow at the Early Neolithic chambered tomb of
Wayland's Smithy in Oxfordshire

[EDW]: Related to the previous question, I wanted to ask you where you see the future relationship between the Pagan community and the archaeological establishment going? Do you think that it is still going to be a rocky road or do you think that the future is going to be smoother than the past in this respect?

[YA]: No idea to be honest, but I do hope that the archaeological community, which has a lot of rationalists in it, does not fall for the common trope that all people of religion are ignorant, irrational, and dogmatic, which is very far from being the case.

I wrote to the excavators of Seahenge to say that I thought it was a good thing that they were finding out about this hitherto lost pagan past, and they replied to say that many Pagans had visited the excavation and expressed support, only to melt away when the TV cameras appeared.

[EDW]: You’ve been involved in the Patheos Pagan website, where alongside Christine Hoff Kraemer (whom I interviewed here back in April 2013) you co-run a blog, formerly termed “Sermons from the Mound” and now titled “Dowsing for Divinity.” How did that project come about?

[YA]: I had been banging on about the need for a discursive Pagan theology for ages, and Christine noticed and invited me to share her Patheos blog on Pagan theology.

I feel that we need to discuss theology – not to lay it down as dogma in any sort of prescriptive way – because otherwise we all follow unspoken assumptions (which are usually heterocentric anyway). It is worth remembering that the term “theology” was originally pagan as it was coined by Cicero in 49 CE, in his work, De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods).

[EDW]: You’ve also recently published the book All Acts of Love and Pleasure: Inclusive Wicca, an insider-exploration of ‘alternative’ sexuality in Wicca. This is a fascinating subject, with some thematic connections to my own research on sexuality in the modern cultus of Antinous; could you tell us a little more about this publication?

[YA]: As a bisexual genderqueer person myself, I got fed up with the heteronormative and heterocentric aspects of some Wiccan rituals. I am fortunate in that the line I was initiated into is unusually blessed with a large number of bisexuals, so we were always ready to challenge heterocentric stuff when we ran across it. I also try to challenge the view that it is necessary to espouse any particular theological viewpoint in order to be Wiccan. I have always been a polytheist for various reasons (not least of which is that duotheism is heteronormative) except when I’m having an atheist or agnostic phase. It is also very important to me that my religion is not in conflict with science – hence my dissertation topic. I have also had a lot of coven trainees with dyslexia. All of this fed into the book – which is about including different perspectives as well as including LGBTQIA people.

[EDW]: As a practicing Pagan who clearly has an interest in scholarship, including the academic study of Paganism, what is your take on the current state of this area of inquiry? How do you feel that the Pagan community are approaching and utilising scholarship on contemporary Paganism?

[YA]: One problem is that the productions of academia are not very accessible to the general public, either because of cost or because of lack of access to journals or inaccessible language employed by academics. I have always admired Ronald Hutton [EDW: who was interviewed here back in July 2014] for seeking to make his work more accessible to the general public – even to the point of writing two separate books on Druidry, one for a popular audience and one for a more scholarly audience.

I have sadly not been able to keep up with what’s going on in the academic sphere - though I would also applaud your blog, Albion Calling, for seeking to bridge that gap, as I feel it is vital to try to make scholarship available to a more general audience. Pagans are often very interested in the productions of academia and Ronald Hutton is held in high esteem by many in the Pagan community. There is always someone who is upset that he thoroughly debunked the idea of an unbroken initiatory line to the ancient past – but what he gave us instead was much more exciting – namely the idea that the Pagan Revival emerged out of many strands of discourse, including the Enlightenment, the Romantics, nineteenth-century occultism, the grimoire tradition (which is genuinely ancient and traceable back to ancient Egypt), and so on.

The reconstructionist and polytheist communities are much more likely to be using archaeology to inform their views, I would imagine, whereas Wiccans and other witches might be interested in research into fairy beliefs and folklore and nineteenth century occult movements. One of my favourite books on this area is The Place of Enchantment by Alex Owen.

In any case, I would like to see more Pagan academics blogging and/or producing popularly accessible books. Sam Webster’s blog At the Herm and Thorn Mooney’s blog Oathbound are particularly interesting. I’m also glad to see members of the Pagan intelligentsia like Sable Aradia producing some really thoughtful and interesting writing. And of course there is some outstanding writing by several authors on Gods and Radicals, edited by the truly splendid Rhyd Wildermuth, who writes beautifully and evocatively and intelligently. G&R was co-founded by Alley Valkyrie, another excellent writer, and co-author with Rhyd of A Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer. I realise most academics don’t have time to write blogs because they’re too busy doing research and administration and teaching.

I think Pagans are producing our own structures of meaning and validation as a counterbalance to the arid rationality of most academic discourse, which is often very dismissive of practitioner perspectives and indigenous ways of knowing, as it is still largely entrenched in colonialist perspectives and discourse. I don’t think that Pagan Studies scholars are arid rationalists and crypto-colonialists.

[EDW]: Yvonne Aburrow, thank you for talking about your perspectives with us here today!

Saturday 12 September 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 1 September 2015

An Interview with Me over at Patheos Pagan's "Dowsing for Divinity"

In anticipation of the November publication of my first book – Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft – which is being brought out by Sussex Academic Press, I was invited to be the subject of an interview by the longstanding Wiccan practitioner Yvonne Aburrow, who runs the “Dowsing for Divinity” blog over at Patheos Pagan. She asked me about the process of writing the book, my own relationship with Paganism and the Craft, and what my views were on the future of Wicca. If this sounds like something that would interest you, please check it out here. (And check out the book itself too when it ultimately hits stores later this year!)

Thursday 27 August 2015

An Interview with Dr. Michael Strmiska

After an eight-month interval in the academic interview series here at Albion Calling, we are back with an insightful discussion provided thanks to the contribution of the American religious studies scholar Dr Michael Strmiska of the State University of New York – Orange County Community College. Many readers of Albion Calling should be familiar with Dr Strmiska’s work on those contemporary Pagan movements which draw inspiration primarily from the pre-Christian societies of Scandinavia and Lithuania, but others might instead know him as the man behind “the Political Pagan” blog in which he provides a left-leaning perspective on issues affecting this particular new religious movement. We talk about his life, work, and opinions on the state of Pagan studies scholarship today.

Dr. Strmiska at the WCER in Belgium, 2005. 

Image provided by Dr. Strmiska.
[EDW]: Born in 1960, you grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut, and attended Hampshire College in Massachusetts. After working in the field of mental health, you decided to go on and study Comparative Religion and History, obtaining an MA degree in South Asian Studies/Religions of India from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then a PhD in Religious Studies/Myth Studies from Boston University. In 1996–97 you then studied Old Norse literature at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik through a Fulbright Student Fellowship. What was it that inspired you to pursue a vocation in academia, and in particular in religious studies?

[MS]: I always had broad interests in religion, philosophy and history. Around 13 my world exploded with discovery of Carl Jung and Alan Watts. Those two opened me up to a lot. When I went to college, I intended a dual program of studies in Comparative Religion (for my heart’s desire) and Psychology (for practical career considerations.) In the end, I focused more on Psychology and worked in the mental health field after graduating, but found it unfulfilling due to growing prominence of psychiatric medication, which I strongly disagreed with. I saw (correctly) that it would take over psychology and lead people to focus on brains and chemicals, not issues and meaning. Though today I do acknowledge more readily that medication can be a real help, I still think we (and psychology-psychiatry) have lost a lot in becoming so physiologically-focused. We are thinking of ourselves more and more just as biochemical machines, which is exactly the kind of biological determinism that Freud and Jung strove to break away from.

By the mid-1980s, after 3 or so years working in mental health in the Boston area, I was becoming quite disgruntled with my lot and knew I had to do something else. My old interest in religion and mythology came calling, and I enrolled in a PhD program at Boston University called “Myth Studies,” under tutelage of Carl Ruck, great classicist who worked with Gordon Wasson on his “Soma” thesis and book in 1960s and did a lot to spark renewed interest in spiritual uses of mind-altering substances, “entheogens,” a term which Ruck either helped create or at the very least championed.  With doors recently re-opening for the exploration of LSD and other such psychoactive preparations, Ruck and Wasson may yet have the last laugh. After decades of a savage and harmful “War on Drugs” in the USA, people are again becoming open to the use, albeit careful use, of herbs and drugs that can induce spiritual journeys. Research is again becoming possible, and I expect we will see more and more of this.

My work in mental health also played a role in my decision to undertake higher studies. Working both in psychiatric hospitals and in outpatient mental health programs, I had discovered that I really enjoyed facilitating group therapy sessions, which made me realize that I would also very likely enjoy teaching. One particular activity spurred me this way. At a mental health program then called Second Story in Newton Centre, Mass., I led weekly current events discussion groups, varied once every month as “bizarre current events” in which we would look for amusing news stories from sources like the old Weekly World News, whose humorous “Ed Anger” columns have sadly provided the forerunner of right-wing political blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and the general thrust of FOX News.

Dr. Strmiska at home in Spring 2015.
[EDW]: Your PhD research constituted a comparative study of afterlife beliefs in pre-Christian Scandinavia and Vedic India. How did this particular piece of research come about and what were its findings ? Have you any thoughts to publish it in future ?

[MS]: After two years in grad school at BU, I decided to start over in a program focusing on Indian religion, which led me to an MA in South Asian Studies at UW-Madison in 1988. I also chose University of Wisconsin because it had a fine Scandinavian Studies Department that would allow me to indulge my interest in pre-Christian Scandinavian mythology and religion. I also deepened my knowledge of the Indo-European link between Nordic (Scandinavian) and Vedic (Indian-Hindu) language, myth and religion. I took classes in both areas including language courses in Sanskrit, Hindi and Old Norse.  I would note Indian religion scholar David Knipe and Old Norse professor Dick Ringler as my key mentors at UW.  They also modeled great teaching and I continue to remember their kind and thorough approach to teaching with immense fondness and respect.

I returned to BU for my dissertation in 1991, having decided to pursue a three-way Indo-European comparison of afterlife beliefs and funerary practices among three ancient traditions, the Vedic, the Nordic – and the Celtic. I did a lot of work on Celtic materials, in fact, studying under the fine Celticist Patrick Ford at Harvard University through a theological studies consortium in the Boston area. I eventually dropped the Celtic piece in order to finish more quickly, as I was very slow in my overall progress, not getting my PhD until 2002.  However, I still have all my Celtic notes and the approximately 150 pages of writing I did surveying the Celtic materials.

I have thought about revising and publishing the dissertation now and then, but when my research in modern (or neo-) Paganism took off, it took me with it and it has been hard to get back to the more strictly historical approach of the dissertation. Now, though, the time may be coming.  I may have found a nice way to link both of my fields of endeavour together, with a book that would look first at ancient afterlife traditions as known from historical, textual and archaeological sources, then look at modern-day Pagan adaptations of these beliefs and practices, and combine the old with the new.  As I have tended to frame Paganism as European-derived, I would offer chapters on Celtic and Nordic traditions, possibly in partnership with other scholars, and certainly invite Pagan studies colleagues to write on other areas, and then add an Indic section as an extra-European section, showing the Indian background to many European Pagan traditions.

[EDW]: Proceeding to work professionally in academia, you worked as Professor of Religious Studies and History at the Anglophone Miyazaki International College in Kyushu, Japan, from 1999 to 2004, before taking on the role of Fulbright Fellow Lecturer in Religious Studies and Humanities at Siauliai University in Lithuania from 2004–05. Returning to the U.S., you worked briefly at Central Connecticut State University and then Cape Cod University College in Massachusetts until, in August 2008, you joined the faculty at the Global Studies Department of the State University of New York – Orange County Community College (SUNY-Orange), where you teach World History and Asian History. Most recently you have taken a break from the States to start teaching a class on “Neo-Paganism and Northern European Mythology” at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic. What do you believe has been behind your love of teaching and studying in far flung corners of the globe, and how have you reconciled your interest in such a wide variety of subjects?

[MS]: You leave out that in addition to my SUNY-Orange duties, I taught a course on “Neo-Paganism and New Religious Movements” at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass, my undergraduate alma mater this past spring (2015), which was wonderful. Hampshire did so much to open and expand my mind when I was 18, and I am glad to see it remains a radical, progressive and experimental institution, which I was very pleased to now participate in as a teacher. The undergraduate-level Hampshire course that I developed has provided the basis for the graduate-level course that I am soon to teach at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic.

As to why I have had such a geographically and culturally scattered academic career, this was not the result of any conscious design, just the fateful combination of cultural curiosity, willingness to follow opportunities where they led, inability to engage in responsible financial planning and a lack of motivation for marriage and family. If I had wanted to raise children or accumulate wealth, my itinerary would not have been possible.  I enjoy experiencing different regions of the world very much and really have come to feel that all humans are one family, which is one reason I cannot get along with tribal-oriented Pagans who seek a closed form of community based on a rather narrow view of human history and heritage. I do find great meaning in historical connections, which has led me to live in both of my parents’ ancestral homelands of Lithuania and (soon) the Czech Republic, and I do greatly value heritage from the past, but I look to the future and see that we are all part of a tapestry with many threads of many types, from the genetic to the cultural to the historical to the spiritual. Living in Japan 1999-2004 was enormously intriguing and stimulating, and seeing Buddhism, Shinto and the Japanese knack for loving and combining both the archaic and the hyper-modern was very influential and inspiring to me.

[EDW]: You have devoted much research to the subject of “Germanic” inspired forms of contemporary Paganism, which are commonly referred to under the umbrella term of “Heathenry” or “Heathenism”. In particular you have looked at the Asatru communities of Iceland and the U.S., and have published on this subject in such outlets as The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies and Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. How did you get involved in this particular field, in which – quite simply – you were a pioneer, going where very, very few academic scholars had gone before ?

[MS]: I would note that most of my recent publications have actually been about Baltic forms of Paganism, mainly the Lithuanian Romuva movement, as well as Asian-oriented New Religious Movements, so it would not be true that I only write about Ásatrú, Heathenry, and/or Germanic/Nordic/ Norse/Scandinavian/ forms of Paganism. (Note: recently I prefer Norse-Germanic Paganism as a catch-all term that covers all relevant bases and slights none).  It is true however that I feel a deep responsibility to both accurately describe the evolution and variations of modern Norse-Germanic Paganism, and to contribute some suggestions for its development in a non-racist, humanistic manner. I have several articles that I am sitting on as I want to develop them further, and only issue them when I am confident that I have found the proper way to speak carefully about some controversial matters in a way that I believe will be constructive. I am not in a position where I have to publish x number of articles or books to keep my job, so I can be prudent (or lazy) about publishing.

Heathen practitioners in Iceland, where Strmiska has done much research.
Image by Haukurth, available at Wikimedia Commons.
To answer your main question of how I got started in this, it goes back to childhood interest in Thor comics and Scandinavian mythology, an interest further developed in college and grad school. By the late 1980s I was conscious of the Ásatrú movement, though my first brush with it was not a happy one. I sent away to an Ásatrú group in Florida that sent me back some newsletters filled with racist propaganda. I still have those documents. I was appalled and did not again explore anything Ásatrú-related until the early 1990s, when back in Boston, I found a few people interested in this sort of thing. We got together a few times without doing much, but I could see the possibility.

My true initiation into Ásatrú came in fall of 1996 when I received a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Iceland, furthering my knowledge of modern Icelandic and Old Icelandic (Old Norse) as well as enjoying exploring modern Iceland, another place that, like Japan, appreciates past and present and future and blends it all seamlessly. I was introduced to members of the Icelandic Ásatrú Fellowship (Ásatrúarfélagið) and very simply, fell in love.

I immediately appreciated the way the members of the group had very different beliefs and interpretations of the meaning, use and value of Norse myth and religion, but came together to both celebrate this heritage and to experiment and extend it as needed or desired, with a healthy sense of humor balancing a very deep spirituality, along with a penchant for artistic expression. One can be deep without becoming dense, and they do this very well in Iceland.  Well, you know, those Icelanders are half-Elf anyway… that’s why Björk is able to sing like that.  I have also met Ásatrú followers or Heathens elsewhere in Scandinavia, most especially Sweden, who have similarly impressed and inspired me as well.

When I returned to live in America after further years abroad in 2005, I found it difficult to locate Ásatrú people with the same sensibility.  I found many Americans interested in Ásatrú to have conservative, sometimes racist, often militaristic views and values that were poison to me. When I tried to engage in dialogue with other Ásatrú members on issues like racism and militarism, hoping to advocate for a more, shall I say left-wing form of Ásatrú, I found myself hounded and hated and rarely encouraged. So I retreated into solitude, and this has also complicated my ability to publish about Ásatrú, though I think I am gearing up to again put my views onto the written page. I have been informally publishing, however, through the blog which has been a nice way to get some ideas out and get some feedback. I have found I am not alone in my politico-religious predicament. To be fair, though, with half of America being fairly conservative in its views, it is entirely understandable that the Pagan scene would need a conservative form of religion, and the American variation of Ásatrú has served that market very successfully. I do hope however to help develop a less militarist, more environmentalist, and ardently anti-racist, anti-Fascist form of Ásatrú that will be in harmony with the Icelandic and Scandinavian groups that are also on this same wavelength.

[EDW]: Accompanying your interest in Heathen variants of contemporary Paganism, you have begun to undertake (again pioneering) research into Romuva, the contemporary Pagan religion rooted in the culture and history of the Baltic nation-state of Lithuania, and have again published on this subject in Nova Religio and in Milda Ališauskiene and Ingo W. Schröder's anthology on Religious Diversity in Post-Soviet Society (Ashgate, 2012).  How did this research interest emerge, and is this an area that you continue to pursue ?

[MS]: Aha, now I see that you did come across my Baltic-oriented articles and writings. I have also published these two pieces: “Paganism-Inspired Folk Music, Folk Music-Inspired Paganism, and New Cultural Fusions in Lithuania and Latvia,” in Carole M. Cusack and Alex Norman (eds) Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Productions, 349-398. E.J Brill, 2012, and “Eastern Religions in Eastern Europe: Three Cases from Lithuania,” in Journal of Baltic Studies 44, 1 (2013), 49-82.

A Romuvan religious festival. Image by Mantas LT.
This is another area where academic interest led to religious exploration, but it also has a familial-ancestral component. My mother’s mother came to the USA from Lithuania in the period of WW I, and I have always been interested to know more of this obscure and mysterious little country that produced my maternal ancestors. In studying Indo-European myth and religion, I became aware that Lithuania has a unique status as the last European nation to convert to Christianity, and one whose language has archaic features that make it among the most closely related to Sanskrit, in terms of the Indo-European language family. I also read works by Marija Gimbutas which further stimulated my curiosity.

I went to Iceland, as noted above, in September of 1996, but before that, in February of the same year, I travelled to Lithuania for my first ever trip abroad. It was amazing to see the country in transition from Communist greyness to a more vivid form of life that celebrated its glorious past, as it was once one of the great European empires, both before and during its alliance with Poland from 1386-1795. When I travelled to Lithuania in February of 1996, I knew of the Pagan revival movement Romuva, and met the leader, the late Jonas Trinkūnas (1939 - 2014), who received me kindly and became a friend and mentor. He invited me to come speak at the inaugural meeting of the World Pagan Congress, soon to be renamed the World Congress of Ethnic Religions (WCER) in Vilnius, Lithuania in 1998 as an interested scholar, and I ended up participating in important discussions of the nature and purpose of the organization, which led me to many contacts with Pagans in different parts of Europe. I also attended and spoke at WCER meetings in 2004 and 2005. I also developed connections with Latvian Paganism and scholars that continue to the present.

[EDW]: In 2005, ABC-CLIO published your edited volume, Modern Paganism in World Cultures: World Perspectives, as part of their series on “Religion in Contemporary Cultures”. Containing contributions from the likes of Sabina Magliocco, Jenny Butler, Jenny Blain, as well as yourself, I personally think that it's a fantastic anthology, and that its great importance lies in that in focuses on forms of contemporary Paganism other than mainstream Wicca, instead looking at Druidry, Heathenry/Asatru, Stregheria, Romuva, and Ukrainian Native Faith. In doing so, it clearly departed from most previous publications in the field of Pagan studies, which had been very much Wicca-centric and which had often presented a picture of Paganism in which Wicca was seen almost as the normative case study for the movement. How did you come to edit this particular volume, and what do you see as its success and influence?

Book cover by ABC-Clio.
[MS]: One of the people on my dissertation committee, Frank Korom, great scholar of Indian religion and folklore from Boston University, invited me to come up with an idea for a volume on modern or neo-Paganism for a Contemporary Religion series he was overseeing for ABC-CLIO. He gave me free rein, and very much influenced by my Pagan contacts in Iceland, Lithuania and the WCER, I had a certain amount of disdain for Wicca as a less-grounded-in-ethnic culture, made-up-by-Gerald Gardner form of modern Paganism, which is one reason for the book not having a chapter on Wicca. I wasn’t anti-Wiccan, but I was simply not every interested in it at that point. I have more respect for it nowadays as I have come to see that every form of Paganism involves a certain amount of modern invention, and that Wicca has blazed a trail for other forms of Pagan religion to follow. In addition, I wanted to publicize interesting but little-known Pagan movements other than Wicca, which had already had a fair amount of ink spilled on its behalf.

[EDW]: You are open about being a Pagan practitioner yourself, and run a blog titled “The Political Pagan” in which you discuss many issues affecting the community from what you have termed “a leftist-liberal” perspective. What do you perceive as the importance of this venture, and of political activism within the Pagan movement itself ?

As noted earlier, the blog grew out of my personal frustrations with the largely conservative political orientation of American Ásatrú and a desire to discuss the issues involved and advocate for something more “liberal” and “leftist” with a larger audience.  I see what I am attempting here and what others are attempting in other ways, in other venues, as a battle for the heart and soul of Paganism. There is a very real tendency that constitutes a very dangerous temptation in many Pagan movements based in European myth and folklore to turn toward racism, even if a veiled form of racism, with an interpretation of European-derived Pagan heritage in essentially racist terms, seeing it as something that not only came from Europe, but is meant only for people of European descent, and which must be protected from mixing with peoples or traditions of non-European pedigree.

Dr. Strmiska's blog, "The Political Pagan".
My viewpoint is that there are beautiful folkloric and mythological elements of European culture—just as in other regions and culture-zones—that have a spiritual dimension which can provide a wonderful platform for modern (or should we say, post-modern) forms of religion, that can be relevant to modern (or post-modern) peoples for many reasons, out of which I would highlight two. Such a religion can provide a connection to the past and to cultural heritage, for those for whom that is meaningful or desired, and can also help connect spirituality to celebration and preservation of nature.  So I see a possibility of striking a balance between an ethnic heritage dimension and an environmental one. Note that I say, provide a platform, in that I see ancient ethnic traditions as  a floor, a basis, a starting point, NOT a ceiling, NOT an absolute limit. We take inspiration from the past and use old traditions to shape tools and perspectives to help us cope with the present and build for the future. And part of that has to be recognition of cultural and ethnic diversity AND cultural and ethnic mixing. There are problems with all of this, contradictions and pitfalls, but I am hoping to help articulate a forward-looking Paganism that has roots in the past, but is open to the future.

[EDW]: Have you got any other projects on the horizon that we should keep our eyes out for ?

[MS]: In 2010, I presented a paper at the American Academy of Religion annual conference entitled “Transatlantic Tensions in Norse Paganism: Left-Wing/Right-Wing Tendencies in America and Europe.” It included a survey of political attitudes among American Ásatrú followers which verified my hunch that the general political tendency in this population was conservative-libertarian. I have since conducted a similar survey among Ásatrú members in Iceland, and have plans to duplicate this in Sweden and maybe also Czech Republic, which does have Norse-Germanic Pagan groups along with Slavic and Celtic ones. When I finally finish the surveys, I will revise the conference paper noted above and probably publish several different versions, very likely in the Pomegranate or Nova Religio if not elsewhere. I am thinking about collecting my various Ásatrú-related articles into a book, also.

My main book project since 2010 has been something broader and more ambitious than my research on modern Paganism: a book entitled Unchristian Eastern Europe: Pagans, Jews and Gypsies, which will look at the presence and contributions of various non-Christian groups from Pagans to Jews to the Roma (Gypsies) and possibly also Tatars and Muslims to the social, cultural and spiritual fabric of Eastern European life over the centuries, from the Roman period onwards. I have spent much of the last four summers researching and writing the Jewish section, which will be the longest part of the book.  It has been fascinating to delve into the history of Kabbalism, Hasidism and the Haskalah, as well as controversial rebel Jewish leaders, Shabbetai Zevi and Jacob Frank. As I am not competent in the languages of many of the regions, groups and cultures I am dealing with, from Lithuania and Latvia in the Baltic region of Eastern Europe to the Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary in the more central part of Eastern Europe, this will be a somewhat derivative work, drawing mightily on secondary sources written in or translated into English.

The originality of the work will be its juxtaposition of Jew, Roma, Pagan and others, to demonstrate that Eastern Europe is NOT— and has never been—simply or wholly Catholic, as many have said of Poland, or strictly or exclusively Orthodox, as is often thought of Russia, but that alongside and underneath the Christian forms of religious thought and culture that have long dominated Eastern Europe, there run separate and subterranean streams of tradition and spirituality. That is to say, I want to make a historical case for Eastern Europe as a zone of religious and cultural diversity, and then move on to a final part of the book that will be rather tricky, but hopefully productive. This will be to note that Eastern Europe has lost some of this diversity in the last few centuries, with the rise of ethno-nationalism in the nineteenth century pushing for single-ethnicity nation states, with the exclusionary, jingoistic logic of “Poland for the Poles,”  “Hungary for the Hungarians,”  “Lithuania for the Lithuanians,” and so on. The most awful form of this impulse was of course the Third Reich with its mass exterminations of Jews, Roma and, to a lesser extent, Slavs, in favor of a single-ethnicity German Empire. This still lives on today in the continuing cruelty inflicted on the Roma across Eastern (and Western) Europe, reviving patches of anti-Semitism here and there, and a new phenomenon of anti-Islamism. My final analysis will ask the question, where should Eastern Europe go from here? To reclaim the cultural and religious diversity of the past, evident in such political groupings as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or to continue the process of ethno-nationalist narrowness and exclusion? To reach out to Roma and immigrant Muslims, or seek to expel or exterminate them? To revive ideas of Christianized versions of national identity that favor the suppression of minority and alternative religions, or embrace religious diversity and let go of Christian domination? Along with religious diversity comes cultural and social diversity, of course.

Paganism, while not being a majority religion anywhere in Eastern Europe, though surprisingly strong in supposedly totally Catholic Poland, and also present in the supposedly thoroughly non-religious Czech Republic, has an interesting role to play in this debate. It is often imbued with ethno-nationalistic pride and impulses, and it too must struggle with diversity, including acknowledging Christianity as a valid and enduring religion and noting that Christianity has absorbed a fair number of Pagan elements over the centuries. How Paganism negotiates its position in Eastern European countries will, I think, be something of a bellwether for the overall direction of Eastern Europe either toward a positive embrace of diversity and an expanding sense of common humanity across ethnic and religious boundaries, or a poisonous turning inwards toward ethnic narrowness and social exclusion.

I envision this book being a useful undergraduate text for courses on Eastern European history or European diversity. It is a massive project that exceeds my capacities, but isn’t that the best kind of project to work on? Teaching at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic this fall, NOT in Prague but the much less crowded, far more cozy, and far less expensive city of Brno, which is just two hours north of the great Hungarian metropolis of Budapest, I hope to have time to write and ample opportunity to meet with Czechs and Hungarians of different sorts: Pagans, Jews, Gypsies and others! There is, for example, a Roma-Buddhist organization in Hungary that I learned of several years ago called Ja Bhim. It sought to empower young Roma with a more positive sense of identity by focusing on the ancient Indian roots of the Roma and then highlighting Buddhism as a form of religion opposed to all social exclusion. Ja Bhim was operating schools for young Roma, with some success, but fell afoul of the right-wing Hungarian national government and lost funding. I have lost track of this group but hope to visit them and learn more. This is the kind of thing I hope to look into while in the region and include in my book.

[EDW]: Having been actively involved in the academic field of Pagan studies for a decade and a half now, I'd like to ask you where you thought that it was heading, particularly given the threats that it faces from university funding cuts. On a related note, how do you think that the field will cope given that it has come under criticism from Markus Altena Davidsen for working under a religionist perspective that places too great an emphasis on emic perspectives ? In particular, what do you see as the future for the study of Paganisms rooted in Northern, Central, and Eastern Europe that embrace a national or ethnic approach to the movement ?

[MS]: I think Pagan Studies is entering a renaissance, with new scholars coming on board who are theoretically grounded, ethnographically talented and methodologically astute. As examples, let me mention two books that I consulted on and which have been published in the last several years, Mariya Lesiv’s The Return of Ancestral Gods: Modern Ukrainian Paganism as an Alternative Vision for a Nation (Montreal: McGill University Press, 2013) and Jennifer Snook’s American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015). Both volumes show a growing maturity in thought and method for our little sub-field, combining fine ethnographic fieldwork with deep historical understanding and probing sociological analysis. [EDW: Having read both works over the past year, I would strongly recommend that Albion Calling readers check them out!]

As to Davidsen’s “scandalous” broadside against Pagan Studies, I do not see the need to over react. He clearly has not seen ALL Pagan Studies scholarship, or he would not have made the sweeping and dismissive generalizations that he did, but he did raise some valid points that are constructive to consider, such as a possible over reliance on the emic point of view. I myself made some similar criticisms back in 2005 in a review of Researching Paganisms, a volume of methodological essays edited by Jenny Blain, Douglas Ezzy, and Graham Harvey [EDW: The latter interviewed here back in February 2014]. I argued then that overuse of one’s own personal Pagan history as a point of reference or focus of discussion could be a problem if it prevents a more balanced view of the situation that would or should take in others’ views both inside and outside the religious group under discussion. Too much emic can be a bad thing, and I would indeed agree with Davidsen on that. However, I don’t agree with what he seems to propose as a corrective to an emic overload, which, as far as I understand his thinking, is a return to a rather stale, old-fashioned, outmoded, “totally objective,” strictly etic form of observation and analysis which robotically reports “scientific” facts and eschews any discussion of the personal viewpoint and position of the writer. That is going too far the other way, in my opinion. I think good scholarship on modern Paganism or any other form of living religion or indeed any social phenomenon should engage with both the emic and the etic side of things, which creates a productive if at times uncomfortable tension that is well worth the trouble.

I do feel that is entirely valid and indeed very valuable for an author of a Religious Studies article to declare their personal religious viewpoint, whether Pagan, Christian, Rastafarian or whatever else. When this is included, the reader can keep that in mind when trying to understand and appreciate the author’s presentation of the religious group under discussion, and be better informed of the overall situation. However, I caution against scholars getting lost in personal reflections of their own experience to where all they talk about is themselves. If you feel that need, go write your autobiography! “Now it can be told….!” Our personal religious experience is a valid piece of data to include in a Religious Studies analysis, but it should be just one datum among others.

I also realize, and think it very important to point out, that for some young and budding scholars who are just now coming up the path in their academic careers, it may be professionally and personally injurious for them to declare a Pagan affiliation of any sort in any published work or public venue, and allowance should be made that sometimes. It is simply not possible for every writer on Pagan topics to describe their personal religious situation or identity. We do want Pagan Studies scholars to be able to gain academic employment and contribute to Religious Studies from positions of strength and security, and in a world where Paganism is a tiny religious minority, asking every Pagan to “come out” and be vocal about their personal religiosity may be more counterproductive than constructive.

There is growing Pagan Studies and New Religious Movement scholarship in Central and Eastern Europe, and I have met a good many fine scholars there, in Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. On a personal note, I was very much moved when I visited the Czech Republic in 2012 and found that portions my book Modern Paganism in World Cultures had been translated into Czech and circulated on the internet there, virtual samizdat style, and was being read with interest by both scholars and practitioners of Paganism. This is one reason I am going to the Czech Republic!

Overall, I think Pagan Studies is doing fine, and debates and discussions of proper method, focus and scope such as were advanced by Davidsen are to be welcomed, even if we do not always like the tone or style of approach. We are a young field, and we will no doubt do well to listen and respond to intelligent questions and critiques as we find our way forward.

I also feel strongly that Paganism will also continue to grow in many different forms, and I worry deeply about the divide between the more “right-wing” ethnic-tribal Pagans and the more “left-wing” open-universalist and environmentally-oriented ones: Stephen McNallen versus Starhawk, as it were. Obviously, this has become my main preoccupation in my own studies of and involvement in Paganism. It should be noted, however, that all religions face these splits and variations, and this could even be taken as a measure, albeit a sad one, of the growing maturity of the Pagan movement. Consider, in the American context, the pro-slavery Southern Christians of the past versus the Civil Rights leaders that grew out of the African-American Christian community in the 1950s and 1960s. Consider the historical split between Sunnis and Shi’ites still roiling the Muslim world and generating fresh bloodshed today, as well as the frequent persecution of Sufis, or the divide between Orthodox Christians and Old Believers in Russia, or that between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. The founders of Hasidism in the late 18th century were beaten and thrown into prison—by other Jews.

Religion is always a fight.

[EDW]: Dr. Strmiska, thank you very much for your illuminating comments here at Albion Calling – I wish you all the best with your forthcoming time in the Czech Republic and your forthcoming projects!