Blogging Break Over, Book Stuff Ahead

I have taken a brief and unwanted break from blogging, but I hope that it is over. First the MacBook Pro that I use for writing and blogging developed a weird, possibly demonic (or daemonic) directory corruption that flummoxed even the specialists up at Voelker Research. About the same time, my desk/computer chair broke, which felt like a sign. A sign that I should just go hiking and read more novels, possibly. And ponder some vivid and meaningful dreams.

That was wonderful, but I have to give a couple of talks next week, and I needed to prepare. So there I was out on the veranda with a legal pad and a stack of books and print-outs, preparing. If I have learned anything in teaching it is that I am not as good at “winging it” as I like to think I am—unless it is a course that I have already taught ten times over.

So while I am doing that, here is an interview with Doug Ezzy about his new book, Sex, Death, and Witchcraft: A Contemporary Pagan Festival.

The book is both a rich ethnographic account of controversial Pagan festival and a provocative reflection on the role of emotions, symbols, and ritual in theories of religion.  The festival involves “a recreation of the Witches’ sabbat . . .  It’s R-rated, it contains adult themes, nudity and sex references”, according to Harrison — one of the festival participants I interviewed.  The theory develops what Graham Harvey and I are calling “relational theory” in the study of religion.

It is on my reading list.

And speaking of reading, expect more book reviews here over the next few weeks.

Nevil Drury 1947–2013

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Nevill Drury

Nevil Drury, well-known Australian writer and teacher on magical and esoteric topics, died yesterday at home of cancer and liver failure.

I had the experience of working with not long ago when he did an article for The Pomegranate: the International Journal of Pagan Studies on “The Magical Cosmology of Rosaleen Norton.”

His Facebook page. His author page at Amazon.com.

A page of interviews with him from his website.

Two Important New Books in Pagan Studies

Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, edited by Kaarina Aitamurto and Scott Simpson, has now been released in hardcover. (No paperback edition appears to be coming in the near future.)

You can read the complete table of contents and see ordering information at Acumen Publishing’s website.

Also being released in June — Pop Pagans: Pagans and Popular Music, with contributions from some of the people on my blogroll, I am happy to say.

The same publishing arrangement applies, one of the reasons that my series co-editor and I said farewell to Acumen.

The Bushranger and the Witches

A quirky story has been filtering out of Australia in bits and pieces.

First came the discovery of the headless skeleton of Ned Kelly (1854–1880), the country’s most infamous bushranger (outlaw) of the 19th century, which involved DNA matching and other modern techniques.

Then his descendents appealed for whoever had the skull to bring it back.

Then comes a “self-proclaimed” (a term used to avoid libel suits) witch from New Zealand who says that she has it — “given” to her by a security guard (under what circumstances?).

This woman, Anna Hoffman, was supposedly a friend of Australia’s most famous pre-Wiccan witch and trance-artist, Rosaleen Norton of Melbourne. An Australian writer on occultism, Nevill Drury, has devoted quite a lot of time to writing about Norton. including a recent article in The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, titled “The Magical Cosmology of Rosaleen Norton.

Which is why I am blogging about Ned Kelly.

“The Occult Experience” of 1985

A friend pointed me to the Vimeo page where you can see The Occult Experience (95 min.), an Australian television documentary from 1985, researched and co-produced by Nevill Drury, on witchcraftandprimitivepeopleandsatanismandexorcismandallkindsofspookystuff.

Watching it was hard, because I kept turning away after encountering such portentous statements as “The search for supernatural powers continues in spite of science and technology” or that people practice “ancient Celtic traditions of nature worship.”

No one unpacks these assertions at all. Rather, they are just delivered as though they were the Final Word.

At one point, the narrator intones, “How does it feel to be a witch in the computer age?” (At the time the documentary was made, I thought my KayPro II portable personal computer was cutting-edge.)

It has its historical interest. Hey, there’s Herman Slater doing ritual in a Manhattan street. Why? You won’t learn from the film!

And at about the 20-minute mark, Alex Sanders delivers version number 1,045 of the original “I was initiated by my grandmother” story, which has been imitated so many times.

Back then, boys and girls, to be a Craft leader you had to have some special story to tell about your magical heritage or you were nobody.

And look, there is Janet Farrar taking her clothes off while chatting with her late husband, Stewart. And the paintings of Rosaleen Norton—can’t have an Australian production without those. Drury would build his later academic career on them.

Margot Adler, Olivia Robertson  . . .  so many names. But no context.

The whole film is thunderingly pretentious and yet basically content-free. You would not learn anything systematic here about the development of contemporary Paganism—which might be Satanic and which might be “primitive” and might involve “altered states of consciousness” (quick clip of Esalen), and is certainly spooky spooky or silly silly, depending on your perspective.

It make me wish that I could take those clips and arrange them into a meaningful narrative. Maybe some day someone will.

Apotropaic Magic, Size 9

I don’t know if the custom of hiding used shoes and clothing in a house under construction to ward off evil influences ever crossed the pond to North America from Britain. If you know of instances—or of people still doing it—let me know in the comments.

I first learned of this custom at an archaeology conference at the University of Southampton some years back. Archaeologists are delighted with such finds. Often they provide the only samples of ordinary people’s clothing, which otherwise would have been worn until it fell apart.

The custom apparently went to Australia with the convicts and other early settlers, however.

Convict's shirt (BBC).

A few blocks away from the Sydney Harbour Bridge is the imposing, vivid orange structure of the Hyde Park Barracks.

Built to house some 50,000 unfortunate convicts transported from the UK between 1819 and the mid-1840s, the jail was among the first substantial structures constructed in the city.

On the second floor, under the boards of a wooden staircase, workers found a striped prisoner’s shirt.

[Historian Ian] Evans rejects the idea that the shirt could have been put under the stairs by accident. Just like the Harbour Bridge shoe, he believes it was hidden for a purpose.

But if you are renovating an 18th or 19th-century building and find an old shoe under the floor, now you know why it was there—maybe. (And did this custom die out completely, and if so, why?)

Five Kinds of “Witch” and Other Reflections on the Academic Study of Contemporary Paganism

Australian writer, blogger, and scholar Caroline Tully continues her interview with Professor Ronald Hutton on the history of witchcraft and related topics.

On the perceptions of conflict between scholars and practitioners:

When some Pagans now express hostility to academics, they are generally doing so in defence of ideas which were originally articulated by other academics. Most often, they are defending what was the general scholarly orthodoxy about historical witchcraft in the mid twentieth century, represented finally and most famously by Margaret Murray of the University of London. What bewilders and angers some members of the public most about professional scholarship now is not actually that it is entrenched and manufactures consent, but that it has overturned many of the received truths of previous decades. To challenge orthodoxy effectively is currently the fastest and most certain way to make an academic career, and the pace of argument and change can be bewildering for people on the outside who want stability and certainty, or at least to continue to believe what they were originally taught about something.

Read the rest.

The forthcoming issue of The Pomegranate will include Tully’s own article on this topic, and it should be available as a free download.

Say It Again: ‘Repressed Memories’ Do Not Exist

Yet another study attacks the theory of “repressed memory,” which has sent real people to real jails for crimes that they supposedly committed against children.

Professor Grant Devilly, from Griffith University’s [Queensland, Australia] Psychological Health research unit, says the memory usually works in the opposite way, with traumatised people reliving experiences they would rather forget.

“It’s the opposite. They wish they couldn’t think about it,” he said.

In a briefing to the US Supreme Court, Professor Richard McNally from Harvard University described the theory of repressed memory as “the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry”.

Where do “repressed memories” come from? Therapists help patients to invent them, as described in this 1993 article from American Psychologist.

Here is another article by Prof. Devilly on the “memory wars.”

During the “Satanic abuse” scare of the 1980s, some prominent Pagans were fooled by supposed abuse survivors who came to Pagan gatherings and would spout some nonsense about how “I was abused by ‘witches,’ but now I see that your kind of Witchcraft is not like that.”

The template for many such fantasies was Lawrence Pazder’s Michelle Remembers, about a little girl in Victoria, B.C., who supposedly spent her childhood as the plaything of a ring of organized and powerful Satanists.

And I will admit that I was blown away by the story when I first read it, such that I did not notice the obvious plot holes.

I say “plot” because it is a work of fiction, dreamed up cooperatively by patient and doctor (who later married) under hypnosis.

These “moral panics” seem to come through on a regular basis, and all you can do is seek the facts and hope that justice does, in fact, move slowly and deliberately and not at lynch-mob speed.

Zippy, the Halloween Slug

I have heard of most of these Halloween folk customs.

The one with the slug is new to me, though, but maybe someone in the Pacific Northwest could try it and report.

Meanwhile, Red Witch in Melbourne is in the midst of a Halloween countdown, examining the commercial side of the holiday in Australia. (Some images may be NSFW.)