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!)