Saturday 9 July 2016

Pagan Studies, Medieval Magic, and Satanic Ritual Abuse: A Summary of Some Recent London Conferences on the Study of Esotericism and Paganism

The past month has borne witness to a number of academic workshops and conferences here in London which I suspect would be of interest to a great many of those involved in the academic study of contemporary Paganism and esotericism. Given that for most of my colleagues in these fields, particularly those living in North America and Australia, a quick trip over to Britain just isn’t feasible, here I’ll provide a brief overview of these events coupled with some of my own personal reflections on them, with the hope that doing so will help to ensure that scholars of these fields will be able to gain a better appreciation of some of the work currently being undertaken in my own little corner of the world.

Social anthropologist Jonathan Woolley talked about
methodological approaches to the study of Paganism
The first of these events was “Researching Pagans and Paganism”, held in the basement of Treadwell’s bookshop in Bloomsbury on Monday 20th June. This evening workshop consisted of two talks on the subject of how best to conduct research into contemporary Paganism(s), the first from social anthropologist Jonathan Woolley, a doctoral student at Cambridge University, and the latter from Douglas Ezzy, a sociologist from the University of Tasmania currently visiting Europe. While I cannot recall all of the details of their respective arguments, their talks dealt with such issues as how to define Paganism, the insider/outsider debate, and how to respond to the concerns raised in Markus Altena Davidsen’s 2012 critique of Pagan studies (many of these issues will be dealt with in an article of mine in the forthcoming issue of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, an unpublished draft of which Woolley was kind enough to cite in his talk). The two talks were followed by a panel discussion between Woolley, Ezzy, and the audience of approximately twenty attendees, most of whom were members of the Pagan community – among them a number of prominent names – but also a few of those active in the academic study of contemporary Paganism too, such as myself and Kavita Maya, a doctoral candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies. This was the first British event devoted to the academic study of Paganism since last summer’s “Generation Hex: The Politics of Contemporary Paganism” conference at Cambridge (which was co-organised by Woolley and Maya alongside Elizabeth Cruse), and hopefully reflects growing activity among the coterie of scholars of Paganism presently active within the United Kingdom. Certainly, it has been good to have a public academic discussion of the methodological and theoretical issues facing this field take place here in the UK, given that in recent years such discussions have been largely restrained to the Pagan Studies Session of the American Academy of Religions annual conference.

The upturned pentagram is the most common symbol of Satanism
Treadwell’s was subsequently involved in co-organising “UK Satanic Abuse Scare, 25 Years On”, an evening conference on the Satanic ritual abuse (SRA) hysteria that hit Britain in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Held at the London School of Economics (LSE) on Tuesday 5th July, the event was produced in conjunction with INFORM, a charity based at the LSE that is dedicated to promoting accurate knowledge about new religious movements and other alternative and/or controversial spiritual groups. The conference was divided into two halves, the first comprising academic and scholarly approaches to the subject, the second devoted to the voices of Pagan practitioners who were negatively impacted by the moral panic. Kicking off the event was a talk by the anthropologist Jean La Fontaine, whose influential (yet at times controversial) research in the early 1990s demonstrated that there was no evidence for a widespread conspiracy of Satanists involved in the ritualised abuse and murder of children (as a number of evangelical Christian groups and media outlets were then claiming). This was followed by INFORM’s Sarah Harvey and Amanda Van Eck, who delved into the charity’s archives to look at how the British public’s response to contemporary Paganism and occultism has shifted since the group’s founding in 1988, paying particular attention to the concerns generated by the SRA panic. Next up was the journalist Rosie Waterhouse of City University London, whose own research during the early 1990s helped to demonstrate and publicise the lack of hard evidence behind most accusations of SRA. She outlined her own experiences and work on the subject, also drawing parallels between the SRA panic of the late 80s/early 90s and the way in which some journalists have reported on the allegations of sexual abuse directed at various celebrities in recent years. After a brief break, the conference continued with an interesting talk from Prudence Jones, the former President of the Pagan Federation, and then Phil Hine, the former editor of Pagan News, who each described their own experiences as prominent figures within the British Pagan community during the time of the hysteria.

The event was obviously dealing with a very sensitive and contentious subject matter, and one on which many people have strong and vocal opinions. However, one thing that I thought notable about the event was that the speakers invited all fell very much on one side of the debate (i.e. they were those who strongly believe that accounts of SRA are all, or virtually all, unsubstantiated and untrue, the product of a moral panic). There are of course others who have contested this approach and argued that – while an international conspiracy of child molesting and murdering Satanists is unlikely – some of those claiming to have been the victims of ritualised abuse are accurately relating events that they have experienced. Moreover, since the late 1990s, a number of Pagans and/or occultists have been arrested and convicted of sexually abusing minors: prominent examples include Robin Angus Fletcher in Australia, Colin Batley in Wales, Redvers Barnard in Greater Manchester, and Peter Petrauske in Cornwall. Clearly, sexual abuse affects the Pagan and occult communities in much the same way that it affects many other religious and indeed secular communities. Moreover, in certain instances (in particular that of Fletcher) that abuse is carried out in a manner that religious studies scholars could perhaps categorise as being “ritualised”, with perpetrators seeking to legitimise their actions by reference to their religious beliefs. This is clearly a different phenomenon from the idea of a massive Satanic conspiracy involving mass molestations and murders, but it muddies the waters and makes the entire issue more difficult to explore, particularly in a dispassionate manner.

The Warburg Institute. Photograph by Philafrenzy, Wikimedia
Two days later, on Thursday 7th July, the Warburg Institute played host to “Magical Traditions and Medieval Religions of the Book”, a one-day workshop organised by UCL’s Sophie Page on behalf of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE). The event was designed primarily for MA and PhD students, and included a session on doctoral and early career advice (special thanks must go out to Egil Asprem and Liana Saif for their recommendations on how to secure post-doctoral funding, something of particular concern to me). However, the event also contained lectures from a number of guest speakers, including Siam Bhayro from Exeter University on his research into the Jewish Aramaic inscriptions on the so-called ‘magic bowls’ of late antique Mesopotamia, Saif on the place of magic in Medieval Islam, and Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov from the University of Manchester on Slavic amulet books from the Balkans. This was then followed by a keynote from Jean-Patrice Boudet of the University of Orleans, in which he spoke on the different ways in which magical traditions were approached in Medieval Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was great to see how well attended the event was, particularly given that this was ESSWE’s first event to be held in London. The first of many, perhaps?

Despite being a major global hub and home to some of the world’s foremost universities, London has arguably lagged behind many other parts of the Western world when it comes to the academic study of contemporary Paganism and esotericism. Over the past few decades, the study of Western esotericism has begun to blossom in much of continental Europe while the study of Paganism has advanced in the United States, but Britain – perhaps because of its weaker institutional framework for the study of religion than many other Western nations – hasn’t quite kept up. I’m really hoping that the events which we have seen in London this summer, alongside the Cambridge conference last year, reflect that that is changing. Britain, and indeed London itself, has played a crucial role in the development of many Pagan and occult traditions, from Wicca and Druidry to Thelema and the New Age movement, and so it is only apt that this nation and this city also comes to be seen as an important centre for the study of these fascinating phenomena.