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.

Ancient Music: “Time Demands an End”

I often like to post re-creations of ancient music. Supposedly, the “Song of Seikilos” is the oldest that has music and lyrics. It is Greek, dating from around 100 CE.

The words can be translated as,

While you live, shine
have no grief at all
life exists only for a short while
and time demands an end.

Blogger Rod Dreher says it reminds him of a song by Beck, which contains a vague reference to “pagans”: “Beck Sings of Seikolos.”

And a commenter says wait, that ancient tune is on the sound track of Sid Meier’s game Civilization 5.

I played earlier versions of Civilization (and its offshoot Colonization, a/k/a The Barbarous Years).

But I just wanted to stay in the Bronze Age, sending out caravans, not progress to railroads and rocket ships.

Time demands an end.

“American Gods” as a Challenge to the Study of Religion

I am still waiting to see American Gods on the screen; meanwhile, scholars of religion are turning to the book and upcoming TV series to see how they challenge conventional views of what “religion” is, particulary in the classroom.

In the first of a series at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog — it’s in the sidebar as “Religion Bulletin” — Eliza Rosenburg writes,

Most people in the [religious studies] discipline would probably skip past the question of who Mr. Wednesday is, and the story dispenses with it quickly as well. Even before it answers the question of his identity for the readers, however, it introduces another question that will inform the rest of the narrative: What, exactly, is “religion”? We raise this old saw in the first session of every introductory class, and American Gods wisely declines to offer another insufficient definition. Instead, the protagonist’s experiences are ones that resonate with a classroom full of curious and frustrated students who have been struggling through an impossible task.

People whose definition of religion is shaped by the question, “What do you/they believe?” are also challenged by the world of American Gods, she writes.

As someone working in Pagan studies, the obvious — to us — differences between the ways that contemporary Pagans create religion are a given, but maybe we don’t explicate them enough. Polytheism vs. monotheism is just part of it.

The article I wrote recently on “Contemporary Pagan, Wiccan, and Native Faith Movements” for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion  “was so fascinating and generated so much interest among our readers,” said an Oxford University Press editor that she invited me to write a blog post. Well, flattery will get you a long way, so of course I said yes. It was published on the 2nd of November. (I wonder why.)

In my blog post, I wanted to talk about how contemporary Pagan traditions challenge ideas of “religion” too, but I had two problems. First, for the presumed audience, I would have to give a bit of a history lesson. Second, there was a 700–1,000 word limit.

As a result, I felt that the title, “Archaic and postmodern, today’s pagans challenge ideas about ‘religion,’” promised more than it delivered. It would have been fun, for example, to take some undergrad religious studies textbooks and assess their explicit and implicit ideas about what religion is, then hold up Pagan trads against that. That might produce a 6,000-word paper, at a minimum. (Put it on the To Do list.)

Meanwhile, watch the Bulletin blog for more reflection on American Gods and religion and other new stuff on the academic study of. There is so much discussion about what “the discipline” is that contemporary Paganism’s challenge is its norms is just one of many. For a sampling, see this entry inspired by Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

A Curse in the Form of an Animal


In Romania, old-style witchcraft is thriving after the fall of the Communist government in 1989.  (Link here if the video does not load.) A fee of €500 for a curse — and it is tax-free!

Not Dead and the House Is Still Standing

william-f-schmalsle

Great-great-uncle Fred,
a dapper Old West sportin’ gent.

Sorry about the lack of content. Everything went topsy-turvy on the 17th and is just now returning to normal, or to a “new normal.”

I left home on the 11th for a trip to eastern North Dakota to go grouse hunting with an old friend who himself was facing heart surgery on the 24th. It’s a thousand-mile drive each way, but I have done it for seven of the last eight years. Lots of restful prairie driving (perfect for audiobooks!), and I can chose a route where the biggest city I go through is Pierre, South Dakota.

This year I tacked on a day and drove via Miles City, Montana, a place that I had never visited but where a number of my paternal grandmother’s relatives lived—her uncles and brothers.

I wanted to see sites associated with my great-great-uncle, whose résumé in the 1870s and 1880s apparently included civilian Army scout, buffalo hunter, saloon-keeper, occasional deputy sheriff, and landlord of and probably silent partner in a couple of  “boarding houses” for young ladies. My cousins and I are trying to sort it out. (He ended up peacefully retired in Pasadena and left my grandmother a nice inheritance from the money he made “in real estate.”) There is a street named after him, a minor street in a residential area.

nd-badlands

Entering North Dakota from Montana on I-94.

I bought a bottle of Montana whiskey to toast Uncle Fred.  Another day’s drive east brought me to a little town dominated by grain elevators, where my old friend G. fetched up about 14 years ago.

We had a couple of days together; then on Monday the 17th my phone woke me with an emergency call. My little rural fire department was being called (at 6:30 a.m.) to assist with a “100-acre grass fire.” The location was roughly west from my house, conditions were dry, and a strong west wind was blowing, I knew. My guts turned to water.

More calls followed. The fire was blowing up: 9,000 acres. 10,000 acres.1)4046 ha. I could not reach M. at first, but eventually she called (after I was already packed and on the road south) to say she was preparing to leave for a motel in a nearby town as soon as the sheriff’s deputies said she had to go right now. I did not try to reach anyone on the fire department, just texted the chief and told him that I was two days away but on the move. I told M. to pack my wildland fire gear: “Just grab everything yellow.”

What do you do magically in such a case? Something sprang spontaneously to my mind as I drove — a giant Smokey Bear, skycraper-size, standing with shovel at the ready at a key road junction.

That sounds sort of comic book-ish, but it works for me. When I learned something about ceremonial magic in my twenties, I realized that my first (and to that time, only) experience of “assuming the god form” was as a 9- or 10-year-old  wearing the Smokey Bear costume on the Forest Service float during parades in Rapid City, SD.

Smokey was created by a commercial artists, but what the heck, he is a demi-god by now. At least to me.

Magical work should be reinforced by material-plane work. The worst of the fire was over by the time I got home, but I still put in a day and a half on an engine crew, plus another day doing engine maintenance etc. at the fire house

The station also functioned as a disaster-assistance center, with various agencies setting up help centers there. In such cases, you are always overwhelmed with donated food. So I took a platter of two-day-old barbequed pork up to the wildlife rehabilitation center that I frequently mention on the other blog.

They have a couple of bear cubs that they are fattening ahead of an early-winter release. The BBQ was a welcome high-calorie treat.

“Thank you!” said the woman who runs it.

“Not me,” I said. “Thank Smokey.”

Notes   [ + ]

1. 4046 ha