Why We Do Pagan Studies – 2

(Part 1 here)

Just to continue the previous discussion, let’s look at a Pagan scholar’s (in both senses of the term) book, Niki Bado’s Coming to the Edge of the Circle (Oxford University Press, 2005).Coming to the Edge of the Circle: A Wiccan Initiation Ritual

Its subtitle is  “A Wiccan Initiation Ritual.”  But is that all that it is about? Nope. What she is doing is challenging the model by which anthropologists and scholars of religion have been understanding initiation and rites of passage for the past century, Arnold van Gennep’s “tripartite model.”

Fifteen years ago, when I wrote the introduction to Witchcraft Today Book Two: Modern Rites of Passage, I too used van Gennep’s model: separation, liminality, and finally reintegration into the group. It was the gold standard, so to speak.

Going out, experiencing something, coming back and re-integrating—it explains everything from the teenage years to Freemasonry.

But what Nikki Bado did five years ago was to offer a new model of initiation, one based on what she called somatic praxis, “a repetitive discipline that engages both the body and the mind in learning” (viii). Her analogy is learning to drive a car, which also requires a “body-in-practice.”

One thing you could say right away was that van Gennep’s model focused more on the person-in-the-group, whereas Bado’s is more about how the person herself changes through “the ritual performance of initiation,” which she describes more as repeating circles than as movement out and back in again.

“As a scholar,” she writes, ” I intended from the outset to use Wiccan initiation ritual as material to think with” (145). In other words, her goal is not to discuss Wicca and only Wicca, but initiation in general.

There is a lot more too it, of course, and Bado spends many pages basically explaining Wicca. But she always returns to the body-in-practice model.

There is some parallel here with Tanya Luhrman’s “interpretive drift,” although that model  focuses more on cognition. (And Luhrman, having gathered what she needed for her dissertation and Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft, sailed off into the sunset, leaving an island of angry natives behind her.)

Bado as a Pagan scholar has several purposes:

1. To propose a new model of initiation that can be applied across religious traditions and cultures.

2. Since she herself follows a new religion—Wicca—and is also writing about it, she has to demonstrate that instead of a “special pleading” she is actually able to offer scholarly (not practitioner) insights that are “otherwise not available to scholarly examination” (145). Thus she must turn her “insider” status into an asset, lest she be accused of taking the easy way, writing about what she is already involved in, perhaps with less than full objectivity.

(Never mind that Jews write about Judaism, etc. Members of new religious movements are viewed with more suspicion as to their contribution to the larger work of the academy.)

3. By using Wicca as her model instead of some other religious tradition, and by discussing her own participation, she also does indeed make a case that Pagan scholars of religion can do good work in the academy. Her work and others’ work makes the study of Pagan religions and Pagan ways of being religious more legitimate.

Do they also help Pagan practitioners? Perhaps indirectly. But that is not what sold the book to Oxford University Press. Point number 1 and possibly number 2 sold the book, I suspect.

When you write an academic book proposal for a publisher, you try to forecast good sales in the scholarly market—and, as sort of holy grail, adoption of your book as a classroom text that students must buy. Sales to “general readers,” i.e., the practitioner buyers, are secondary or even tertiary, behind library sales. The publisher hopes for them, but they are not what push the book’s publication, most of the time.

4 Comments

  1. Sophie Gale says:

    Coming to the Edge of the Circle looks like a good read. I will have to put that on my list. I would suggest leaving a reader’s review for her on Amazon. There’s one doofus review already there.

  2. [...] very validly argue that both are ongoing processes, and not a once-and-for-all experience; indeed, Chas Clifton discussed this recently on his blog in relation to Niki Bado’s book Coming to the…, and if I’m not mistaken, both Robert Hopcke (in Jung, Jungians, and Homosexuality) and [...]

  3. Pitch313 says:

    My Neo-Pagan Craft practice shifted when I took up mountain biking. But one aspect of the shift involved departing from some widely shared experiences and making sense of some that non-riding Pagans would not share. The mountain bike became a ritual tool and a ritual process and a communications channel.

    Other sports and activities do much the same for other practitioners.

    I think that body changing in limnal circumstances are spiritually distinct from body changes in ordinary circumstances.

  4. John Beckett says:

    For me, academic works on Paganism serve as maps. Not road maps with turn by turn instructions, but topographic maps – they show me the lay of the land. By comparing my beliefs, practices and experiences to those reported in serious Pagan Studies, I’m much less likely to wander down some rabbit hole that is ultimately unhelpful.

    Also like topographic maps, they show me features of the landscape that I may have overlooked – they point me toward new areas for exploration.

    And now I have to go find “Coming to the Edge of the Circle”…