Interview with Helen Berger, Leading Scholar of Paganism

Prof. Helen Berger

At his blog, now called On New and Alternative Religions, Ethan Doyle While interviews Helen Berger, one of the leading American scholars of contemporary Paganism.

Since completing her PhD research on the early modern witch trials in the 1980s, Berger has devoted her career to the sociological analysis of modern-day communities whose practitioners call themselves witches. Her first book, A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States (University of South Carolina Press, 1999), was a landmark in the subject and was followed up with important studies such as Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States (with Evan A. Leach and Leigh Shaffer, University of South Carolina Press, 2003), Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self (with Doug Ezzy, Rutgers University Press, 2007), and most recently Solitary Pagans: Contemporary Witches, Wiccans and Others Who Practice Alone (University of South Carolina Press, 2019). Currently a Professor Emeritus at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and an Affiliated Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, Berger is continuing to work on the modern Pagan milieu, exploring its relationships with far-right politics. She tells us about her career and her thoughts on the future of the academic study of modern Paganism.

She explains how her interest in today’s Witches and Pagans grew from earlier research on the Salem Witch Trials and similar events. In the mid-1980s, she gave a series of lectures at the Boston Public Library — and realized who was in the audience.

The audience for each of the lectures varied with some people who attended every week and others who came only for a particular lecture. One elderly woman with white hair always sat in the front row, listened intently, and asked interesting questions. I looked forward to seeing her there every week. At the final lecture, when I said what was then a surprising fact; Witches looked like everyone else. You could be living next door to, or working with, a Witch and not know it. She stopped me mid-lecture and asked, “are you saying there could be Witches in the room.” As the average age of the participants had dropped significantly for this lecture, I offered that I thought there probably were Witches in the room. She stood up, turned around with her hands on her hips, and asked, “are there any Witches here?” I think it is because she looked like the quintessential grandmother that a number of people raised their hands.

Read the whole thing. Helen Berger has also published a number of articles in The Pomegranate as well as being one our most valuable peer-reviewers in the sociology of Paganism. Her 2015 article “An Outsider Inside: Becoming a Scholar of Contemporary Paganism” reflected on some of the issues involved.

An Offer to Buy the Pomegranate, and Other Pagan Studies Scams

Statues of Communist leader Mao Zhedong in various Chinese temples (Bitter Winter).

Periodically I receive these emails, usually in the business-school dialect of babu English. Academic publishing, apparently, is full of scammy stuff like this.[1]I have also encountered them in real estate and in regard to mineral rights.

Dear Editor/Publisher,

Hope this mail finds you in best!

I am writing down this mail as a follow up in reference to the acquisition proposal I had sent recently. I request you to revert back and let us know if we can hope to take this forward.

Please feel free to get back to us with your valuable suggestions/queries.

Hoping for a positive response from your end.

Best regards,
Chia Appu

M&A Consultant
JCFCorp
Singapore | India | UK | US
Mobile/Whatsapp: +44 7451248959
website: www.jcfcorp.com

Not the first, won’t be the last. If I set the price at US $500,000, could I string “Chia Appu” on for a bit? The only problem there is that I do not own The Pomegranate; Equinox Publishing does. I would need to take the money and move somewhere that has no extradition treaty with the UK.

Academia has its scams, all designed for people willing to trade money for shortcuts.Diploma mills” have a hoary tradition, of course.

Sadly, I lost a friend over one of these shortcuts. “R.” had written a couple of articles for Pomegranate in the past, and he was good in his field. He then proposed another article, which appeared ready to publish — except that he wanted to list this Chinese professor as co-author.

Pagan studies is a fairly small world, and I had never heard of this man. I looked him up at [well-known Chinese university], and there he was, in the Dept. of Communist Studies or something like that.

It was clear to me that the Chinese professor had had nothing to do with writing the article, which was based on fieldwork in Western Europe. He was just being offered the chance to pad his c.v. in return for some other favor for R. — like a non-resident teaching position?[2]R. is lucky that he was not required to live there, given a certain well-known disease outbreak.

And there was more to the deal. [Well-known Chinese university] was supposedly starting a center for the study of new religious movements. The university was ready to “throw money at” the center’s projects.

If I were willing to designate their center as a “sponsor” of The Pomegranate and “put some Chinese names on the editorial board . . .  the arrangement [would be] more than nominally profitable [for you].”[3]R. had his own journal, which I am suppose now has some Chinese professors on the editorial board.

And there was no doubt that [Well-known Chinese university] had the cash.

There it was, a naked bribe. An odd  experience. Had I been as financially shaky as R. thought I was — as financially shaky as he himself had often been until later in his career — I might have been more tempted. Sorry, professor of Communist studies, you are not going to buy your way in Pagan studies that easily.

I said no, and R. cut me off completely.

Something chilling occurred to me later. The  incident was about five years ago. Since then, the mainland Chinese government has been cracking down on religion — all religions. The online journal Bitter Winter has carried many articles on the repression of not just “foreign” religions, mainly Islam and Christianity, in the People’s Republic, but also Buddhist and Taoist temples, new Chinese religious movements, and even family and clan memorial halls that go back for centuries.

All of them threaten President Xi Thought, apparently. All you can worship is Communism.

So if [major Chinese University] was preparing to study new reliigious movements, was that just part of a plan to wipe them out? There are predecents for that sort of thinking.

Notes

Notes
1 I have also encountered them in real estate and in regard to mineral rights.
2 R. is lucky that he was not required to live there, given a certain well-known disease outbreak.
3 R. had his own journal, which I am suppose now has some Chinese professors on the editorial board.

Jefferson Calico Talks Heathenry with Ethan Doyle White

Click over to Ethan Doyle White’s blog, Albion Calling,  to read a new interview with Jefferson Calico, author of Being Viking: Heathenism in Contemporary America.

Since I acquired this book for Equinox Publishing’s Pagan studies book series, I am happy to see it praised by an astute writer on Pagan history like Doyle White, who called it “one of two important works on American Heathenry that have appeared over the past decade.”

A little bit about Calico’s scholarly journey is interesting:

Many of us have experienced paradigm shifting moments during our educational journeys— those moments of discovery that unfold for us along new and unexpected paths. These moments arise from all sorts of stimuli—disciplined reading, insights from our teachers, and from seemingly random “aha” moments, to name a few. In my own journey, one of those moments came for me in reading Carole Cusack’s Invented Religions (Routledge, 2010) . .  The cumulative effect of that book rescued me from a previously dismissive attitude about new religious movements and opened a new world of scholarly interest. I had entered my PhD program initially intending to pursue research on Islam. However, a conversation with my supervisor—strangely enough about the 1994 Olympics hosted by Norway—caused me to re-evaluate and drew my attention to the growing presence and influence of Paganism in the contemporary world. As I discuss in the introduction to Being Viking, an offhand question in a graduate seminar stirred my initial curiosity about Heathenry and led to it becoming a major interest. A chance conversation with a friend, Dr Thad Horrell, while walking to an American Academy of Religion (AAR) venue in San Diego led to a new line of inquiry and research that helped me to better understand the tributaries of American Heathenry.[1]You don’t get these experiences on Zoom. Rather than one over-riding passion, my interests and work have been nudged along by these sorts of important and transformative experiences.

Read it all here, including the part about being an “outsider” researcher at Heathen events.

Notes

Notes
1 You don’t get these experiences on Zoom.

“Why Women Need the Goddess:” The Passing of Carol Christ

Carol Christ 1945–2021

Carol Christ (Unitarian Universalist Women and Religion).

Carol P. Christ, PhD, a foremost figure in women’s spirituality and Goddess religion, passed away five days ago (14 July 2021). She was born in 1945.[1]Most people said her surname as “Krist.”  Not to be confused with Carol T. Christ, former president of Smith College and chancellor of the University of California-Berkeley.

Via HecateDemeter, here is an obituary for her from The Girl God blog.

Christ’s first book, about women writers on spiritual quest, is a book of spiritual feminist literary criticism that focused on feminist authors Kate Chopin, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Adriene Rich, and Ntozake Shange. She discovers four key aspects to women’s spiritual quest: the experience of nothingness; awakening (to the powers that are greater than oneself, often found in nature); insight (into the meaning of one’s life); and a new naming (in one’s own terms). She emphasizes the importance of telling women’s stories in order to move beyond the stories told about women by the male-centered patriarchy. Her concluding chapter speaks of a “Culture of Wholeness,” that encompasses women’s quest for wholeness, and she adds that, for this wholeness to be realized, the personal spiritual quest needs to be combined with the quest for social justice.

She published an influential list of books (see link above) and was also known for leading group pilgrimages to Goddess sites in the Mediterranean region. There are also links to other tributes to her.

Notes

Notes
1 Most people said her surname as “Krist.”  Not to be confused with Carol T. Christ, former president of Smith College and chancellor of the University of California-Berkeley.

Joining Folklore: The Electronic Journal of Folklore

The Estonian Literary Museum, Tartu

Last month I accepted an invitation to join the editorial board of Folklore: The Electronic Journal of Folklore, which is published by the Estonian Literary Museum in the city of Tartu.

They have not yet updated the website, but you know how that goes.

Because Folklore is government-supported and Web-only, you can read the contents online. The articles are in English—otherwise I would not be much use to them, nor would the other board members from the USA, Ireland, India . . .

Here, for example, is “The Transmission of Knowledge among Estonian Witch Doctors,” by the editor, Mare Kõiva, the one who invited me.

It is not all about Estonia, however; I see articles from the other Baltic nations and from Finland, Russia, Ireland, and elsewhere. And you will find occasional articles on native Paganism, shamanism, etc.

My family has no Baltic corrections, although my oldest sister spent the last couple of years of her life in Kaunas, Lithuania, which is too long a story to tell here.

It would be great to go there sometime, pick a few mushrooms, and read or write in a room like this one.

Maybe I could drop in on the secret cyberforce. They probably have already read this post.

Our guys in Multicam are there too. You didn’t know? They probably never get to use the folklore reading room.

Mourning Wendy Griffin

Wendy Griffin as a Sixties folksinger.

My day was knocked sideways around noon when I learned that Wendy Griffin (1942–2021) had died a couple of hours earlier, peacefully and at home, according to Doug Cox, her husband.

After a late-blossoming career as an academic, where she retired after charing the Department of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at California State University, Long Beach, she took on the job of academic dean at Cherry Hill Seminary for a few years more. Earlier, she had been a folksinger, a published novelist,[1]As Wendy Lozano, author of She Who Was King and other works. and I don’t know what all else.

(For more on Wendy’s bohemian, pre-academic life, go here.)

Doug Cox and Wendy Griffin.

In 2004, when after eight years of trying, a group of scholars persuaded the American Academy of Religion to recognize Pagan studies by granting us our own program unit, Wendy was the first co-chair, along with Michael York. When I succeeded her, she walked me through how to handle all the bureaucratic scutwork that came with the job, something I am not always good at doing.

Wendy’s Paganism and academic life were intertwined. In an autobiographical essay for The Pomegranate she wrote,

When the large red-headed student stood up the first week of the semester and announced to my women’s studies class at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), that she was a Dianic Witch, I knew it was going to be an interesting semester. It was 1987 and I was a “freeway flyer,” one of those PhDs teaching on multiple campuses, trying to patch together enough part-time jobs to survive until that magical tenure-track position appeared.

Attending a Dianic Witchcraft campout, she had a realization:

From the time I was two years old until I was 16, I had spent every summer surrounded by women in the forests of Wisconsin and Michigan. My mother was the associate director of a Campfire Girls camp during WWII and then opened a girls’ camp of her own.6 Before the campers arrived and after they had gone, I would be left pretty much on my own. I would take a lunch and walk in the woods, build fairy gardens, try to communicate with small animals. When I was a little older I’d take one of the canoes and paddle around the three small connecting lakes, losing myself in the tall reeds. I always felt safe, protected because, I would actively pretend, I was part of the wilderness. I remembered how we campers would walk two by two, singing softly as we processed down through the silver birch trees to the lake and the campfire that awaited us. I didn’t know the word “spirituality” at the time and probably wouldn’t have recognized it if I had. But as I stood there in the mountains outside Los Angeles, the memories flooded back and the magic of the night brought that sense of connection from my childhood. That was when I realized the feelings were spiritual, that I was a spiritual person, and what these women were doing were practices that they believed healed them and connected them to a greater whole.

Wendy at the American Academy of Religion, Atlanta, 2015.

She had published an edited collection, Daughters of the Goddess: Studies of Identity, Healing and Empowerment, with AltaMira Press, who asked her to edit a Pagan-studies series. She knew me only through email, but she asked if I would help, and now here I am, with the series at home at Equinox.

Birth of a book series? Wendy Griffn (l), AltaMira Press editor Eric Hanson, and Kristy Coleman, author of “Re-riting Women: Dianic Wicca and the Feminine Divine.” American Academy of Religion, Denver, 2001.

When Wendy retired from teaching and book-series editing, she was not done yet: in 2010 she agreed to help Cherry Hill:

I took the [academic dean] position a few months before officially retiring from CSULB. At Cherry Hill, I have been fortunate to work with deeply dedicated and hard-working professionals. That is especially important, as only the executive director and the faculty are paid, the latter only during the semester they teach and never what they are really worth. We are a small seminary and exist on a shoestring budget. Fortunately, I get a small pension from CSULB now that I am “retired,” so I can afford to do service at CHS.

O Fortuna, velut luna statu variabilis

She continued,

Writing this article is the first time I have looked back at my career as a Pagan studies scholar in any detail. Four main things stand out to me. First, I never would have gotten anywhere without putting in a great deal of hard work. That is a given for all of us, but to begin undergraduate education as a single parent on welfare in her thirties is uniquely challenging.

Second, the networking I have been able to do through professional organizations and the contacts I made there have been invaluable, beyond anything I could have imagined at the time. To me, that is why these annual meetings are worth it, even if there have been times when I had to go hide out in my hotel room from overload.

Third, I believe it is important to take risks, and I certainly have taken my share. Risk-taking doesn’t always work out, but you can always learn something from it. That knowledge can pay off in future, unexpected ways.

Fourth, all the hard work in the world would not have led me to a successful career without good luck. In several key places I was in the right place at the right time and prepared enough to take the hand of the Goddess Fortuna when she offered it to me.

I have been blessed.

Wendy, we have all been blessed to know you.

Notes

Notes
1 As Wendy Lozano, author of She Who Was King and other works.

Pagan Studies Call for Papers, American Academy of Religion 2021

Part of San Antonio’s restaurant-packed Rivewalk. Let’s hope it looks like this by November again. (Image: AAR)

This is the call for papers for the Contemporary Pagan Studies unit of the American Academy of Religion for the 2021 annual meeting, to be held in San Antonio, Texas, Nov. 20–23. (Insert pandemic disclaimer here.)

Contemporary Pagan Studies is an interdisciplinary unit, and we welcome submissions of theoretically and analytically engaged papers and panels relating to modern Paganism and Polytheism, employing scholarly analysis to discuss the topic from any relevant methodology or theoretical orientation. In addition to receiving paper or panel proposals on topics generally in the purview of Contemporary Pagan Studies, we especially welcome proposals that address the following themes:

• What is the relationship between Contemporary Paganisms and other religious traditions and populations? Where are there shared goals, values and experiences? Are there common concerns such as sexual abuse, religious minority representation, and climate change? What is the impact and role of interfaith initiatives in increasing Pagan visibility in public discourses and in promoting religious pluralism?
• How are Pagans responding to various crises including economic, political, climate change and systemic racism? Suggestions might include explorations of ritual, political action and activism, community driven initiatives, or ideological shifts such as a tighter embrace of anti-modernism, orthodoxy or exclusivity.
• What is the relationship between Pagan worldviews and science, rationality and narratives of progress?
• Pagan responses to aging and end of life. As Pagans face the realities of an aging population, how are Pagan communities preparing? What are Pagan spiritual attitudes toward aging and the end of life? How do they ritualize aging and death? How do Pagans handle pastoral care and ministry for older demographics?
• What are some of the ways in which Paganisms and Witchcraft interacts with and responds to Neoliberalism? Examples may involve explorations of globalization, late capitalism, ideas about individualism and collectivism, marketing and branding.
• We are seeking presentations for a co-sponsored session between the Ecology Unit and the Contemporary Pagan Studies Unit related to ideologies of ‘blood and soil’ and white nationalism in recent radical political movements, and engagements with this in contemporary Paganism and Heathenry. Questions to address might include but not be limited to: what is the significance of religious identity, ancestry, and connections to land in these movements; how are concerns related to authenticity, legitimation, and “imagined community” involved in these narratives; and what implications does this suggest for developing attachment to place, and bioregional identity in settler and other populations?

Mission Statement

The Contemporary Pagan Studies Unit provides a place for scholars interested in pursuing research in this newly developing and interdisciplinary field and puts them in direct communication with one another in the context of a professional meeting. New scholars are welcomed and supported, while existing scholars are challenged to improve their work and deepen the level of conversation. By liaising with other AAR Program Units, the Unit creates opportunities to examine the place of Pagan religions both historically and within contemporary society and to examine how other religions may intersect with these dynamic and mutable religious communities.

Method of Submission: INSPIRE

Chairs:

  • Damon Berry, St. Lawrence University, dberry@stlawu.edu
  • Amy Hale, Atlanta, GA, amyhale93@gmail.com

Call Deadline Extended for Gothic Encounters with Faerie Conference

John Anster Fitzgerald (1823-1906), Fairies Looking Through a Gothic Arch

Everything academic seems to slo-o-o-w down in 2020, so you can still submit a proposal for the “Ill met by moonlight’: Gothic encounters with enchantment and the Faerie realm in literature and culture” conference at the University of Hertfordshire, 8–11 April 2021.

We are pleased to announce an extension to the CFP for our ‘”Ill met by moonlight”: Gothic encounters with enchantment and the Faerie realm in literature and culture’ Conference. You can now submit proposals up till to 31 January 2021. We hope this will allow people to participate who were concerned about travel restrictions. Anyone who is researching the interplay between fairies (in the widest sense; we are very interested in the global equivalents of these creatures) and the Gothic is welcome to submit a proposal, but please hurry! Please see the web page for full details of how to apply.

We have also extended the conference by one day so that it now runs from 8-11 April 2021. We will be adding further plenaries and activities.

Due to the current pandemic, we have now decided to hold this as an online conference using Zoom. It’s disappointing

that we’re unable to meet in person but it does mean we can have a much more global and diverse event. Further details of the programme will be announced in the future; please keep an eye on the website.

Find the text of the original call for papers here.

Of course, that’s “Gothic”  as in a subgenre of Romantic lierature of the late eighteenth and early nineteentn centures.

Not Easten Germanic tribes notable in late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, and not a black-clothed fashion statement.with (I think) dreary music.

Lurching into a Virtual Annual Meeting of the AAR-SBL

Screenshot from the annual meeting scheduling app. At least it works better than some of the scheduling choices do!

If this were a normal year — and we know it’s not — I would be in Boston right now with 10,000 of my closest friends, attending the annual meeting of the American Acafemy of Religion and its smaller, parent organization, the Society of Biblical Literature.[1]The SBL was founded in 1880 and the AAR in 1909, originally as the Association of Biblical Instructors in American Colleges and Secondary Schools. A typical meeting involves hearing papers until your brain is full, meeting with publishers and editors, shouting into friends’ ears in noisy hotel bars, attending receptions (free food!), touring the host city, drinking,eating, buying too many books, and generally getting your intellectual batteries recharged.

This year we are all Zoomerati. I got off to a bad start this morning, having quickly walked and fed the dog, made coffee, built a fire in the woodstove to warm the kitchen and dining room for M. when she got up, and settled myself to “attend” the first session of the day, a workshop from the Ritual Studies group.

I had attended a similar workshop last year, which was limited in size by the nature of the workshop. This time, you were supposed to pre-register, and I thought that I had done so, but sometimes I am a little dyslexic about online forms and stuff. The time came, but the “Join” screen button did not.

It turned out to be full. Evidently I messed up when I thought that I had registered — or I had been too late.. Today the  session’s chat room was full of people asking “Do I have to register”” “Can I register?” “I paid for AAR — why can’t I register?” and so on.

Some might have been confused by the Virtual Annual Meeting FAQ page, which states,

Is there a way to make a reservation in advance to attend a session?
No need to do this—just join the session when it begins.

A normal annual meeting is five days. This virtual annual meeing goes from November 29 to December 10, but still manages to produce situations where I want to be in sessions that meet simulataneously.

Like Tuesday. Some scheduler put New Religious Movements (which was the first home of Pagan studies before we got our own unit), Indigenous Religious Traditions, and a  “exploratory session”: “Things That Go Bump in the Night”: Folklore, the Supernatural, and Vernacular Religion,” all at the same time! Ten days they have to work with, yet much of what I want to attend happens all at once.[2]I should add that most groups have more than one session; Contemporary Pagan Studies has three, for instance.

“But they will be recorded, surely,” you say. Maybe Not that I can see from the info in my planning app! Crap crap crapola. (I would love to be wrong about that.) Do I just jump from virtual room to virtual room? Apparently so.

And there is no book show and no dinner in a nice restaurant on the publisher’s tab. No quick trip on the train up to Salem to buy witch kitsch. No window-shopping on Newbury Street. Just the same old house and the same old screen.[3]I pity attendees in Europe, who have to say up through the wee hours to attend.

But there is at least one book that I bought last year in San Diego that I have yet to read, so I will pretend it’s new.

Notes

Notes
1 The SBL was founded in 1880 and the AAR in 1909, originally as the Association of Biblical Instructors in American Colleges and Secondary Schools.
2 I should add that most groups have more than one session; Contemporary Pagan Studies has three, for instance.
3 I pity attendees in Europe, who have to say up through the wee hours to attend.

Conference on Current Pagan Studies Seeks Presenters

Last year I had the honor to give a keynote address at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies in Claremont, California. Last year’s conference involved a train trip. This year, like everything else, it’s virtual. Dates are January 16–17, 2021. The keynote speakers are scholar Michael York  and writer and Heathen leader Diana Paxon. I expect that virtual-attendance details and pricing will be announced later.

From program manager Jeffrey Albaugh:

This upcoming meeting of the Conference on Current Pagan Studies, now in its 17th year, will take place in a virtual setting. While the restrictions that keep Pagan studies scholars from gathering together physically are necessary to check the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, these restrictions offer us a unique opportunity to gather utilizing the digital magic of the internet, and opens the conference up to individuals that may not otherwise attend or present.

This year’s conference theme concerns “Contemporary Paganisms During Extreme Change,” and the online nature of the 2021 Conference on Current Pagan Studies is an aspect of the adaptations all of us are making within our practices of Contemporary Paganisms and Witchcrafts.

Here is this year’s Call for Papers:

Like a living organism, historic and contemporary Paganisms adapt to shifts in the environment, the swelling and shrinking of populations, or the migration of peoples across the landscape. History, practices, belief, even the masks worn by the divine, dance to the music of change, revealing and vanishing within the ka- leidoscope of human experience.

Contemporary Pagans look toward the traditions of the past, observing the ways that we have traveled from some distant place and time, and using the tra- jectory of those journeys to chart paths forward into the future. Many of these “old ways” may be deemed worthy, and others may be found wanting and in- compatible to modern sensibilities. What do we keep? What do we discard? What do we transform? Who do we become?

How do the conditions surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic change the content and shape of contemporary Paganisms? How does social distancing practices strengthen or weaken coming together in community, the teaching of magical practices, and the continuation of the various traditions of Witchcraft, Wicca, Reconstructionist, and other practices?

The Conference on Current Pagan Studies is looking for papers that explore these possibilities. How will we endure the extremities of change and find new ways of being in a brave new world? From this point in the here and now, how do we demonstrate respect to those who have gone before, and how will we create a heathy and sustainable future for those who will follow?

The Conference on Current Pagan Studies invites papers that explore this theme from historical, creative, psychological, spiritual and other points of view. We are looking for  papers from all disciplines, because a community needs artists, teachers, scientists, healers, historians, philosophers, educators, thinkers, activists, etc. As usual we are using the word “Pagan” in its most in- clusive form, covering Pagans, Wiccans, Witches and the numerous hybrids that have sprung up as well as any indigenous groups that feel akin to or want to be in conversation with Contemporary Pagans.

Abstracts should be no longer than 300 words and are due by October 31, 2020. Go to our website  for advice on presenting papers. Please email abstracts to pagan_conference@yahoo.com.