CFP: Irish Network for the Study of Esotericism and Paganism

(Extended) DEADLINE APPROACHING

In association with the Study of Religions Department, University College Cork

To be held on Friday, 31st March 2017

We are pleased to invite scholars to take part in the launch and first workshop of the Irish Network for the Study of Esotericism and Paganism (INSEP), a multidisciplinary research network for scholars working on any aspect of Esotericism (historical or contemporary) or Contemporary Paganism that relates to the Irish context. Its mission is to provide a forum for networking and collaboration among scholars who are based in Ireland and those based abroad who have research interests in the subject areas of esotericism and contemporary Paganism as they relate to Ireland. A general goal of the network is to establish a forum for academics — whether established researchers, postgraduate students, early career researchers or independent scholars — to communicate with each other, share information on relevant conferences and other events, and to promote interdisciplinary collaboration among those researching in the areas of Irish esotericism and Pagan Studies. The Irish Network for the Study of Esotericism and Paganism is a Regional Network of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism: http://www.esswe.org/Regional

The INSEP invites papers and contributions on the subject of esotericism and Contemporary Paganism that relate to the Irish context, as well as the study of Contemporary Paganism and Western Esotericism in general, including areas such as:

• Esotericism, political change and social movements
• Ethnography and Western Esotericism
• Contemporary Pagan Studies in Ireland and/or international connections
• Media representations
• The notion of Celtic Spirituality
• Theoretical frameworks/changing paradigms in the academic study of religions

Call for papers: Please submit your proposal in the form of a title and an abstract (max. 250 words), stating institutional affiliation (or independent scholar) to Dr Jenny Butler: j.butler[at]ucc.ie by Friday 13th January 2017. Please put ‘INSEP Proposal’ in the subject line.

Some “Spare” Links and the “Witchcraft Aesthetic”

¶ The University of Heidelberg has scanned and put online a 1916 issue of Form, a small British art magazine containing numerous illustrations by Austin Osman Spare, noted English occultist and artist. Here is a sample.

¶ If I were visiting Milan, I would visit this Tarot painter’s studio and drop a few euros. Maybe I could afford one card.

His shop boasts an endless variety of cards, making it a treasure trove for lovers of the occult in the Italian North. Some decks depict the major and minor arcana (tarot’s “face card” and “number card” equivalents) in Cubist shapes. Others portray them as animals or even flowers, inspired by vintage science books. One deck reimagines traditional iconography with old maps that Menegazzi finds at Milanese flea markets. 

¶ First, I am always suspicious when a news article introduces someone as “controversial,” as in this case: “the controversial Azealia Banks.” It’s like a way of saying, “We don’t like her, but we are pretending to be objective.”

According to the article, the performer outed herself as a  Brujeria practitioner, in other words, folk witchcraft.

The video shows Banks getting ready to clean out her closet in which she has practiced Brujeria for the past three years. After seeing the closet caked in chicken blood, feathers, and some black stuff we can’t figure out, the Internet of course went wild. But why was everyone so shocked to learn that Banks had been sacrificing chickens? The artist, as problematic as she may be, has admitted to practicing — specifically Brujeria —in the past.

But then the writer, one Samantha Mercado, gets off onto the subtlties of the “witchcraft aesthetic” and female empowerment.

There are plenty of pop culture trends that feed feminism, but the mainstreaming of witchcraft has proved both empowering and problematic. The word and idea of a witch were traditionally associated with demonizing women — images of an ugly outcast cackling over a cauldron or a green Margaret Hamilton come to mind. But recently, the image and connotation associated with witches has become more and more empowering — witches are being portrayed as heroines instead of demons.

With this new, all-empowering image of a witch comes a slew of trends pandering to a “witch aesthetic.” From blogs to high-end clothing lines, it seems like everyone is trying to cash in on the witch trend, and while the increased popularity of witchcraft has helped the practice grow, it makes you wonder if everyone appropriating it understands its origins.

Oh shit, the secret is out. Witches don’t go door to door asking if you have heard the word of Cernunnos. No, we let the “aesthetic” reel in the innocent seekers. We’re happy to see young ladies dressed up in “sexy witch” costumes. Next thing, Pandemonaeon albums, festivals, polyamory, and arguments over “traditional.” (With the guys, it’s tricker. But not much.)

Really, art beats dogma every time.

13th Conference on Current Pagan Studies

Click to embiggen or visit the conference website here.

New Pomegranate Issue Published

The newest issue of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies (18:2), has been published online, with printed copies coming soon.

Book reviews are free; there is a charge for articles. Complete table of contents with download links here.  Amazon links below.

Articles

“The Image of Paganism in the Age of Reason: From Idolatry towards a Secular Concept of Polytheism ” by Pavel Horák

“The Seduction of Avalon: The Pilgrimage to Goddess and the Affect of the Tour”  by Christina Beard-Moose

“Witches’ Tears: Spiritual Feminism, Epistemology, and Witch Hunt Horror Stories” by Laurel Zwissler

“Witches, Pagans and Historians. An Extended Review of Max Dashu, Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, 700–1000” by Ronald Hutton

Book Reviews

Sophie Page, Magic in the Cloister: Pious Motives, Illicit Interests, and Occult Approaches to the Medieval Universe Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013), x + 232 pp., $82.95 (cloth), $39.95 (paperback) reviewed by Egil Asprem

Rigoglioso, Marguerite, Virgin Mother Goddesses of Antiquity (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010) 267 pp., $110 (cloth), $36.00 (softcover), $24.99 (ebook) reviewed by Lisa Crandall

Michael D. J. Bintley and Thomas J. T. Williams (eds.), Representing Beasts in Early Medieval England and Scandinavia (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: The Boydell Press, 2015), xii and 295 pp., €84.99 (cloth) reviewed by Carole M. Cusack

Jean La Fontaine, Witches and Demons: A Comparative Perspective on Witchcraft and Satanism (Oxford: Berghahn, 2016), 150 pp., £60 (cloth), £17.50 (paper) reviewed by Ethan Doyle White

F. S. Naiden, Smoke Signals for the Gods: Ancient Greek Sacrifice from the Archaic through Roman Periods (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 442 pp., $82 (cloth) reviewed by Sam Webster

Links that Start in Bristol

¶ Professor Ronald Hutton talks about his career and admits — in public — that writing The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft actually harmed it for a time. “Reframing Modern Paganism” in Pagan Dawn magazine.

Heat Street, a political news site, notes the growth of Paganism in the U.S. Army. It’s relatively snark-free coverage, with mention of the ground-breaking Sacred Well Congregation.

¶ If you want to “dream the dark,” do it in Westcliffe, Colorado. Click the link for the short video.

Thinking How the Tarot Smuggled Paganism to the Present

In my twenties, the Tarot was about the most “occult” thing around that I could bring out in public settings. I learned to read the cards semi-competently and had some adventures thereby. When I made it through an evening of reading for casual strangers in a nightclub, I figured that I was probably at my pinnacle.1)I told a woman that she was pregnant althought it did not show. I was right—she already knew.

Then I moved into other things more and more, including other types of divination. 2)For some good short essays on divination, read John Michael Greer on “The Speech of the Stars” and “Foundations of Magical Practice: Divination.” I did write a little on the history of the Tarot, then pretty much shelved my cards.3)They are now unshelved, however. At one point I had thought of collecting Tarot decks — that was right about when the number of decks exploded! From the short list (Marseille, Waite-Smith, Crowley’s Thoth deck, Palladini’s Aquarian Tarot, and few others), we went to practically a “Tarot Deck of the Week.” U.S. Games Systems has a few. “The Undersea Tarot,” anyone?

Some months back, I was reading something that Thorn Mooney had written on Tarot, maybe her Tarot Skeptic blog. We see each other at long intervals; otherwise, it’s email, so I wrote and asked her what historical books on Tarot she would recommend. One was out of my price range.4)It might as well have been published by Brill. The other was The History of the Occult Tarot by Roanld Decker and Michael Dummett.

I bought the book. I read through 200-plus pages of Rosicrucians, Freemasons, ceremonial magicians, astrologers, Western Qabbalists, etc.5)Overlapping categories, yes. trying to force the Tarot to mesh with these other systems, such as the Hebrew alphabet. If it did not mesh, they hammered on it until some sort of fit was achieved, as in A. E. Waite’s switching of the Strength and Judgement cards to fit his scheme.

It all seemed part of Western esotericism’s ongoing demand for a system Where Everything Fits Together and Corresponds with Everything Else — a demand that seems informed by a quasi-monotheistic or Platonic outlook.

But what if it will not all fit together? The Tarot deck itself is a mashup. You have the four symbolic elements, which are also social groups, as favored in the Indo-European tradition:6)Other  cultures get along with three, five, or whatever. Air/spades/swords/aristocracy; Fire/wands/clubs/farmers; Earth/pentacles/diamonds/merchants & craftsmen; Water/cups/hearts/priesthood.7)If you follow George Dumézil’s “trifunctional hypothesis”, you might think of this as 3 + 1, with merchants being the 1 split of from class 3, the commoners.

Built on top of that is an upper story derived from “the Pagan dream of the Renaissance,” to borrow the title of Joscelyn Godwin’s excellent book on “the almost untold story of how the rediscovery of the pagan [sic], mythological imagination during the Renaissance brought a profound transformation to European culture.”

As Decker and Dummett write in their section on Tarot-writer Eden Gray, her interpretation of Tarot symbolism was “based not on occult fantasy, but on themes well known to art historians.”8)Still she could not stop trying to glue on some “Cabalism, astrology, and numerology.” Art historians have more to offer here than do correspondence-obsessed magicians, I suggest.

Consider the observations of William Lindsay Gresham, who wrote a preface to one editing of Charles Williams’ Tarot-based novel The Greater Trumps and created his own Tarot-influenced noir novel, Nightmare Alley. He wrote,

The Tarot is not a mnemonic device for a set doctrime, it would seem, but a philosophical slide-rule on which the individual can work his own metaphysical and religious equations.

So forget the Hebrew alphabetic correspondences. Think instead of the Tarot as the product of some (probably aristocratic and/or clerical) creative dreamers living in (most likely) northern Italy in the 15th century. They were not Pagan as such, but they might have been what we could call “Pagan re-enactors,” trying intellectually and artistically to reinhabit the world of Greco-Roman Paganism.

They took artistic and philosophical themes of their time and grafted them onto a pre-existing card game. Among the pages of this “book” the old gods and archetypes snuggled in for a journey of five or six centuries.

Notes   [ + ]

1. I told a woman that she was pregnant althought it did not show. I was right—she already knew.
2. For some good short essays on divination, read John Michael Greer on “The Speech of the Stars” and “Foundations of Magical Practice: Divination.”
3. They are now unshelved, however.
4. It might as well have been published by Brill.
5. Overlapping categories, yes.
6. Other  cultures get along with three, five, or whatever.
7. If you follow George Dumézil’s “trifunctional hypothesis”, you might think of this as 3 + 1, with merchants being the 1 split of from class 3, the commoners.
8. Still she could not stop trying to glue on some “Cabalism, astrology, and numerology.”

2017 Pagan Studies “Call” Completed, Will Be Published Soon

As I mentioned, my term has co-chair of the American Academy of Religion’s Contemporary Pagan Studies Group ended this year. It’s been a log run, if you figure that this effort to bring Pagan studies into the academy started in 1995, with an informal “who are we” meeting, more of the same in 1996, and a first proposal for an official program unit in 1997.

That proposal was shot down by the program committee, who said in effect, “You have no proven that you cannot get your needs met elsewhere, such as in the New Religious Movements Group.” (It was already getting to the point where some NRM scholars felt that Pagan stuff was dominating their program to the detriment of other subject matter.)

So we started our own “additional meeting,” listed in the program book but not official—and we had to pay a fee. We heard papers presented and discussed them, just like in a regular session.

Some internal changes at the AAR made it possible to get our first official session in 2005; meanwhile, doctoral student Cat McEarchern had taken over the “additional meeting” and built it into an all-day event for a couple of years in the mid-2000s.

I shifted to the steeering committee of the new, official Contemporary Pagan Studies Group and eventually took my turn as co-chair. I will not miss the annual ritual of having to draft a call-for-papers within two weeks after the annual meting, so that the program committee can confirm it in January for the next annual meeting. This usually happens during finals week, at least for North American universities. How was it done before email? Lots of calls from your office phone, I suppose. It takes a lot of unpaid hours to run the AAR or any similar society.

I will post the text of the call here when it is official. Meanwhile, it was great to see Amy Hale and Shawn Arthur get the job done with relative ease.

Thoughts on Pagan Studies after the 2016 AAR Meeting (2)

1. A Colorado Springs hotel banquet hall, early 1980s.

A young business reporter at the Colorado Springs Sun, I am attending a big luncheon meeting of the Colorado Association of Realtors (CAR) because the speaker is someone whom I want to cover.

Before we eat, a Protestant Christian minister delivers an invocation in the name of Jesus Christ. The CAR public relations director, a “business friend” of mine,1)We have some other connections — I learn that as a teen she babysat my uncle’s kids in Denver leans over and whispers, “So much for our Jewish members.”

“So much for the Wiccan journalist,” I think silently, but I am used to being the tiniest minority.

2. A San Antonio, Texas, hotel banquet room, 21 November 2016

For the last time (see previous post), I have risen early to attend the 7:15 a.m. breakfast meeting of AAR program-unit chairs. It’s usually a light buffet meal followed by announcements about new staff appointments, policy changes, and the like. But this time, speaker after speaker veers off into The Election.

All weekend, in fact, I had been subjected to a lot of “inflation” in the psychoanalytic sense. The wrong guy won the election; consequently, the American political system would collapse and indeed, life as we know it was threatened on a planetary scale. Because it’s all about us Americans and what we do.2)Disclaimer: I did not vote for Donald Trump, but he is not the End of the World either. Get a grip, people.

Like the Christian minister at the luncheon, every speaker assumed that every other person in the hall shared his or her political position.

This assumption was richly ironic, considering that the AAR is always talking about strength-through-diversity, etc. The hall held atheists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, even a couple of Pagans, with all racial groups represented — but politically, apparently, we were a monoculture.

No hedging, no qualifying, no metadiscourse, no reflexivity — this was sermonizing, with the assumption that everyone in the room was the same.

Some of my critical theory-oriented religious-studies friends are always accusing the AAR as being quasi-theological and churchy.3)They usually maintain membership in the North American Association for the Study of Religion as well. This day they would have been right.

Leaving aside President-elect Trump, I started thinking that these “normative political and theological approaches” (to quote Russ McCutcheon’s letter) were also an impediment to my sub-discipline, Pagan studies.4)We practitioner-scholars have already been accused of being “caretakers” rather than “critics,” to use McCutcheon’s terminology.

I am more and more pre-occupied with questions of how, for example, taking polytheism seriously as a way of describing the cosmos challenges some ingrained assumptions that remain within the larger discipline of academic religious studies even in 2016.

Monotheism is just assumed, really. Galina Krasskova described a recent interaction with some of her fellow grad students:

They were teasing me (I’m obviously the only polytheist in the class, and these two knew that so we were throwing good-natured zingers back and forth) about being a polytheist who studies theology and I said something to the effect that we’re taking it back. That actually brought them up short and one said “but you never had it…Pagans didn’t have theology.” I’ve been pondering that (erroneous) statement ever since because it’s not an uncommon attitude in academia.

I am not saying that we in the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group should be doing theology, but we could be asking in a meta- sort of what what Pagan theologians are saying and writing.

We may never be part of the Big Five (or Six) religious traditions in the academy, but we can continue, as Krasskova says, challenging their “unspoken paradigms.” Our little field’s existence in the academy tests all their fine language about diversity.

Notes   [ + ]

1. We have some other connections — I learn that as a teen she babysat my uncle’s kids in Denver
2. Disclaimer: I did not vote for Donald Trump, but he is not the End of the World either. Get a grip, people.
3. They usually maintain membership in the North American Association for the Study of Religion as well.
4. We practitioner-scholars have already been accused of being “caretakers” rather than “critics,” to use McCutcheon’s terminology.

Thoughts on Pagan Studies after the 2016 AAR Meeting (1)

From the 15th through the 23rd, I was either on the road or attending the annual joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature.1)Despite its name, it does offer occasional sessions that touch on ancient Pagan religions in the Roman empire. I refer to it as either “10,000 introverts”2)9,500 this year or “my social life for the year.”

Christine Hoff Kraemer switched hats this year, and instead of presenting, wrote a summary of the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group’s sessions for The Wild Hunt, and you should go read it.

As she said, it is my last year as co-chair; we serve a three-year term, renewable once, so I am term-limited. This autumn I had been savoring a sense of relief that I was finished. I was more than ready to pass the responsibility of report-writing and session-organizing to new people. (Since my co-chair lives in Norway, I wound up with most of the bureaucratic responsibilities.)

And then when we had our steering committee meeting to start working on next year’s session, I suddenly had a mild attack of “empty-classroom syndrome,” what you feel at the end of every teaching year, even if you too cannot wait to get out the door, just like the students. I was suddenly a has-been. No more VIP blue ribbon on my name tag!

But life goes on. I invented a new job for myself, collecting archival information on the group — now eleven years old — to help for our next five-year-review. For complicated AAR reasons, the last one was not in 2015, as you might think if you just counted years.

There is all this stuff dumped on my desk: program book, notebooks with notes about books to look for,  information to send to Person X, and ideas for writing.

I talked with a couple of editors in the field of new religious movements about the archive on the Wiccan murder case that I aquired last August, and they were encouraging that it could be a conference presentation and maybe a journal article. I am still not sure how to treat it beyond journalistically; it does not feel like an obvious “new religious movements and violence” thing, but maybe some critical approach will make itself known if I just start writing.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Despite its name, it does offer occasional sessions that touch on ancient Pagan religions in the Roman empire.
2. 9,500 this year

Jared Diamond Was Wrong—The Greenland Norse Adapted

Medieval chess pieces carved from Greenlandic walrus ivory (National Museums Scotland).

A new article in the journal Science refutes Jared Diamond’s claim that the 400-year-old Norse colony in Greenland failed because its habitants failed to adapt to the land.

Diamond’s thesis in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed was that the Norse made bad ecological decisions. As one reviewer summarizes,

The problem with the settlements . . . was that the Norse thought that Greenland really was green; they treated it as if it were the verdant farmland of southern Norway. They cleared the land to create meadows for their cows, and to grow hay to feed their livestock through the long winter. They chopped down the forests for fuel, and for the construction of wooden objects. To make houses warm enough for the winter, they built their homes out of six-foot-thick slabs of turf, which meant that a typical home consumed about ten acres of grassland.

Diamond, popularizing earlier research, said that the Christian Norse settlers clung to European lifeways of crops and cattle, while the arriving Inuit lived by hunting marine animals. New research shows that it was not that simple:

In 2012, NABO researchers clinched the case that the Greenlanders ate a marine diet by analyzing human bones in Norse graveyards. Animals that live in the sea have ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes that differ from those found in terrestrial animals, and this isotopic signature is passed on to the people who eat them. The Norse bones show that as the settlement developed from the 11th to the 15th century, their diet contained ever more marine protein. Far from clinging to livestock as temperatures fell, the Norse instead managed a successful subsistence system with “flexibility and capacity to adapt,” wrote the author of the 2012 paper, Jette Arneborg from the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

Nor were the Norse incompetent farmers, as Diamond and others have suggested. Soil geographer Ian Simpson of the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom says previous studies overestimated the Norse contribution to erosion in Greenland. New pollen and soil data show that the Norse allowed fields and what little forest existed to recover after tilling and turf cutting. And in analyses of soil and lake sediment cores, researchers have found chemical and paleoecological clues indicating that Norse farmers skillfully maintained pastures with manure fertilizer and irrigation ditches.

The disappearance of the colony is still a mystery. There is no evidence for war with the Inuit. Climate change — the Little Ice Age — definitely played a part, but politics and trade disruptions were another part. Some historians suggest that too many young adults, seeking better opportunities, returned to Iceland or Norway, leaving the colony to simply dwindle away.

Still, they had a long run, and leaving a mystery behind is paradoxically one way to be remembered.