CFP: 2017 AAR Contemporary Pagan Studies Group

All the calls for the 2017 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion are now online. The meeting itself will be held 18–21 November in Boston.

The Pagan studies theme is “Witch Hunts: Rhetorical, Historical and Contemporary.”

The term “witch hunt” is used as a rhetorical strategy in contemporary political discourses, and yet there have been and are actual hunts for witches past and present. The Contemporary Pagan Studies Unit invites papers on a variety of topics, using various methodologies, exploring rhetorical, historical, and contemporary “witch hunts.” The following suggested topics are not exclusive:

• The historical persecution of people as “witches,” both in Salem, Massachusetts, other places in the United States, and elsewhere.

• Contemporary persecution of people as “witches” in Sub-Saharan Africa.

• Sites of representation or memorialization of witch hunts, for example, Salem, Massachusetts, and Vardo, Norway.

• The mythologizing of witch hunts, witchcraft persecution, and/or negative images of the “witch.”

• The hunt for “witches” as antagonists to the “true’” faith or as disruptors of good social order.

• Tensions and contrasts between witchcraft-as-malefic and witchcraft-as-Paganism.

The Pagan-Esoteric Complex: Mapping Intersecting Milieus.
Despite the considerable overlaps that exist between contemporary Paganism and Western esotericism, there have been no conscious efforts to bring scholars in these two fields together around intersecting research interests. To amend this situation, the Western Esotericism Unit and the Contemporary Pagan Studies Unit invite papers that deal with one of the following three intersections:

• Intersecting milieus of practitioners (e.g., shared spaces and material cultures, shared practices, overlapping group memberships).

• Intersecting identity discourses (e.g., the formation of identities around tropes such as “magic vs. religion”, “Pagan vs. Christian”, or “tradition vs. modern”).

• Intersecting histories and genealogies (e.g., the roots of esotericism in the mnemohistory of Paganism, and the roots of contemporary Pagan practice in nineteenth-century esotericism).

We are particularly interested in papers that focus on mapping contemporary milieus, but historical and conceptual papers are also welcome.

• Pagan and “pagan” Musics.
The Contemporary Pagan Studies Unit and the Music and Religion Unit are co-sponsoring a session that would document, compare, and theorize the different uses of the term “Pagan,” to either describe music associated with a set of religious or spiritual cultures and practices or the ways in which “pagan” was used as a term of exoticization of art and popular musics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We welcome a variety of approaches and methodologies. Some suggestions for topics might include: Contemporary Pagan musical traditions and chants, use of music in ritual, Pagan musicians and festivals, or “pagan” as signifier or marketing term for exotic or non-Western musics. We also welcome submissions on any topic in contemporary Pagan studies outside of these suggested session themes.

For complete information, visit the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group’s website.

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.

“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.

North America’s Four-Footed God

When I was new to Paganism, I thought about pantheons. Should I be signing with Team Celtic, Team Roman, Team Germanic, or whom?

Now I don’t really care. Sometimes you don’t come to the pantheon, the pantheon comes to you — and it may be a motley crew at that.

My own pantheon includes Hermes, Tlaloc (I live at the fringe of his territory), the Moon, and a forest god who has manifested as a young blue spruce tree dusted with golden aspen leaves.

But maybe I should make room on the shelf for Old Man Coyote, whose howl, says Dan Flores, author of  Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History, could be “the original national anthem of North America.” His publisher says,

Coyote near my house this summer.

Coyote America is both an environmental and a deep natural history of the coyote. It traces both the five-million-year-long biological story of an animal that has become the “wolf” in our backyards, as well as its cultural evolution from a preeminent spot in Native American religions to the hapless foil of the Road Runner. A deeply American tale, the story of the coyote in the American West and beyond is a sort of Manifest Destiny in reverse, with a pioneering hero whose career holds up an uncanny mirror to the successes and failures of American expansionism.

Coyote likes camps, villages, towns, and cities. He lived with the Aztecs in Tenochtitlan — the word coyotl itself is Aztec (Nahuatl), pronounced COY-yoht, so we Westerners who say it as two syllables actually favor an older pronunciation than the Hispanicized co-yo-te.1)As a boy in the Black Hills of western South Dakota, I was taught that only Easterners and tourists said kiy-yo-te.

As a deity, he was Huehuecoyotl, or “Venerable Old Coyote, “who sounds so much like the widespread North American god-avatar often called ‘Old Man Coyote’ that the empire-minded Aztecs may have borrowed him from tribes far northward, in what is now the western United States,” Flores writes.

Europeans had old experiences, stories, myths, and preconceptions about gray wolves, bears, and foxes and long employed folk stories about them to investigate human nature. But coyotes are different. The coyote is an American original whose evolutionary history has taken place on this continent, not in the Old World. We see it not from the traditional vantages but from a sideways one, and from that perspective everything looks different.

But you don’t honor him/her/them by feeding them, at least not directly. Maybe you honor Coyote by telling Coyote stories. They are easy to find.

AFTERTHOUGHT: Wrong canid in the title, but a movie nevertheless inbued with the spirit of Old Man Coyote is The Grey Fox (1982), starring Richard Farnsworth.  I treasure my VHS copy.

Notes   [ + ]

1. As a boy in the Black Hills of western South Dakota, I was taught that only Easterners and tourists said kiy-yo-te.

Kicked Back in Time

I was contacted a couple of months ago by family members of  the two defendants in a Wicca-related murder case. It was big news in the American Craft network1)I prefer that word to “community”—especially for that era. circa 1977–80. If you remember it, fine. If not, I am not going to summarize it now because I am thinking in other directions. Maybe later.

A few days ago, two medium-size cartons arrived in the mail, full of newspaper clippings, notes, correspondence, annotated copies of jury lists, itemized bills from lawyers and investigators, sworn statements and affidavits, investigators’ reports  — pretty much the entire paper trail except for the actual trial transcripts and some of the law-enforcement paperwork.

The old Court TV channel (now TruTV) would have loved this case, but it came a decade too soon.

And too early for the Internet, thank the gods. The hypothetical comments on a hypothetical post on The Wild Hunt would have blown up the server, I am sure.

One thing you don’t find in every criminal case is a thick file of psychics’ impressions of what “really happened,” complete with maps and diagrams, not to mention psychic readings of a couple dozen potential witnesses. (The investigator checked out some of this info as best he could.)

Yes, it was just the opposite of the Salem witch trials of 1692–93. In this case, it was the defense using “spectral evidence.” And while there was no bill from Dr. Buzzard for “chewing the root” in court, you can bet some magic-workers were involved.2)For more on the doctor, read High Sheriff of the Low Country.

I don’t feel like writing a “true crime” book, but I want to write something.  I had drafted a chapter on the trial for Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca And Paganism in America, but I deleted it because it did not mesh with the other themes of the book. (Now where is the file, on the old iMac in the basement?)

Maybe we need a Contemporary Pagan Studies Group session on “Paganism and Violence,” and since I won’t be co-chair after this year, I can submit something.  It’s a story that needs to be told, from the perspective of folklore studies or perthaps the study of new religious movements. To me, now, almost forty years after the events, it’s not so much the “who done it” that interests me as it is the context in which these events were imbedded.

Meanwhile, I have rough-sorted all the papers and condensed two cartons down to one, having set aside lots of old Pagan zines and unrelated materials of various sorts that were tossed in with the trial documents. Among these was the “Pagan Occult New Age Directory Supplement, Autumn 1978,” from the Pagan Grove Press of Atlanta. I looked up “Colorado” and there I was, with my old Manitou Springs telephone number. Kicked back in time.

Notes   [ + ]

1. I prefer that word to “community”—especially for that era.
2. For more on the doctor, read High Sheriff of the Low Country.

Why Pagans Aren’t at Home in “Interfaith” Groups

In 2009, the CESNUR organization for the study of new religions held its annual international conference in Salt Lake City.

The panels, papers, and speaker events ended with a dinner at the historic Alta Club, which is drippingly gorgeous in a sort of late Victorian/Arts & Crafts style. I would have skipped the roast beef for an architectural tour of the place.

But no, I was in my dining chair when one of the Mormon “Seventies” — a member of an upper level in the hierarchy — delivered a benediction. (While the fundamentalist, breakaway LDS groups had been a major focus of the conference, this was about the only official-ish interaction with the mainsteam LDS church.)

First he said a few words in regard to the group’s purpose, acknowledging its diversity (founder Massimo Introvigne, for example, is an Italian lawyer by training and very Catholic), adding, “but we all worship the same [G]od.”

I groaned inwardly. It reminded me why I don’t do interfaith stuff — I spoke once at a luncheon in Denver, that’s all. I know some Pagans do it — more power to them — but I become a little . . . withdrawn . . . when the “we all worship the same god in the end” discourse begins.

All this came back when I read Galina Krasskova’s recent blog post, “Interfaith Doublespeak.” She writes in her usual take-no-prisoners style:

It becomes all about making the person feel good, about making them look “enlightened” and “spiritual” so they can get a pat on the head without ever having to challenge any oppressive status quo, especially any religious status quo. Their model is monotheistic. The model for their rites and rituals is, whether they acknowledge this or not: monotheistic and actual engagement with the Powers of any tradition is generally lacking. Most interfaith rituals I have observed are not just doggedly human centric but, despite whatever trappings the organizer might appropriate, devoid of Gods. I mean, you sort of need to name the Gods to call Them into a space and that might be exclusive. Everyone has to feel comfortable after all so let’s just go with the lowest fucking common denominator and call it a day. Hence you end up with what I call impious and unclean space. (Read the rest.)

Yes, right there, that is why I do not attend interfaith luncheons. But I would attend another meeting of the Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni if it’s within driving distance.

“Witches of America”: Sitting at the Cool Kids’ Table

I finally read Alex Mar’s Witches of America, and it is better than I thought, based on some of the reviews that I had seen, like this piece of negativity, for example: “[a] sordidly pornographic and self-aggrandising narrative” or this one: “extremely judgmental,” or the Complete Hurt Feelings Wrap-up here.

First, this is not a grand survey of the Pagan scene by a sympathetic journalist, similar to Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America (1979, rev. 1986) or the even earlier Witches U.S.A. by Susan Roberts (1974).

Rather, as one Pagan reviewer sarcastically noted, the better comparison was Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia(I cannot imagine Julia Roberts playing Margot Adler in the movie version of Drawing Down the Moon.) It’s a memoir about “finding yourself.”

But I still enjoyed the read, once I realized that it was not any kind of a survey but more like Alex Mar trying to find the cool kids’ table in the magic-school cafeteria. Just when you think she has settled on a corner seat at the O.T.O., she started looking across the room at the necromancers. Maybe they are the real kool kidz.

At least you, the reader, get to ride along with actual necromancers after midnight. That’s worth the price of admission right there.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Gilbert’s marriage to Jose “Felipe” Nunes, the “Love” part of her title, has broken up after twelve years. I wonder if Alex Mar will be active with the O.T.O. that long.

Still Enchanted After All These Years

Enchantments’ owner, Stacy Rapp. (The Guardian).

The Guardian, a British newspaper, profiles Enchantments in Manhattan,  which “after 34 years in business in the East Village, with the recession and the rising rents of gentrification claiming so many small businesses . . . might make anyone believe in magic.”

Read the whole thing. (Thanks to Mama Fauna.)

Spirits, Photography, and the Burned-Over District

Why was the Eastman Kodak Company founded in Rochester, New York, not far from the town of Hydesville (now part of Arcadia Township), where the Fox sisters birthed the American Spiritualist movement? Is there a connection between photography and spirits?

Esoteric photographer Rik Garret tof Chicago says yes, and he has launched a YouTube video series, of which this is the first episode.

He briefly mentions the Burned-Over District, which is a religion-scholar’s term for the part of northern New York (and in adjacent Vermont), where numerous new religious movements and personages started or flourished in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Andrew Jackson Davis, the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” was just one — Shakers, Mormons, and other movements either started or began to grow there. “Burned over” refers to the “fires” of revival movements that swept the area in the Second Great Awakening, which “reflected Romanticism characterized by enthusiasm, emotion, and an appeal to the super-natural. It rejected the skeptical rationalism and deism of the Enlightenment.”

You could say that we are still feeling it.

 

Thoughts after a Funeral

A member of my little rural volunteer fire department died last week at the age of 47.1)It was not a line-of-duty death; other causes So the chief, the treasurer, and I put on our rarely worn dress uniforms for the funeral — M. came too — and we went off to a little rectangular funeral chapel in a nearby town for the “celebration of life.”

The chief had quickly put together a quickie memorial display of an American flag in one of those triangular presentation boxes plus the man’s structural-fire helmet, which went onto the table with the urn and some other items, flanked by flowers and two easels holding collages of photographs. Pretty standard stuff these days.

But along with that, you had people sitting in rows and whispering too each other. The building was too hot (aren’t they always?). The music was canned vaguely spiritual pop — the only lively tune was “Spirit in the Sky” with its hard-driving opening chords — from way back in 1969.

The rent-a-cleric gave a [put deceased’s names here] eulogy, tripping over the fact that while the man’s legal first name was “Larry,” most people there knew him as “Scott” or “Scotty.” (His business cards read “Larry ‘Scott’ Lastname.”)

When the widow rose to speak — a tall, lanky woman clinging to the lectern for support, wracked by sobs — Scott’s mother rose and started waving her arms — the funeral director rushed up from the back of the chapel and led her away. She was not overcome by sadness, oh no, she apparently hates this woman, who was her son’s second wife.

The older woman came by the fire station two days later, wondering if any of her son’s personal items were there (they were not). She said she was “not allowed” to go up to his house, which is up on a ridge further on up the road. After she left, we looked at each other, and the words “mother-in-law from hell” were heard.

I ask that if I have a memorial service some day, there will be no recorded music. I think of these quasi-Protestant funeral-home services I have attended, where the rent-a-cleric sits on a bench gazing into the middle distance while some ghastly piece of “praise music” plays on cheap speakers.

If I cannot have live music — a harper playing “O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music” would be good — then just go straight to the fun part: “The evil bastard is dead — drink up!”  Fire a volley to scare away ghosts. Please don’t sacrifice my dog(s). Then go home.

Pagans, we need to do better than what I sat through last Tuesday. I know that some people are doing it.

Notes   [ + ]

1. It was not a line-of-duty death; other causes