If in this year of 2013, an interplanetary anthropologist came to England for fieldwork, what would they discover? On a variable Sunday each spring, we give our children more chocolate than is good for them, eat roast lamb and visit garden centres.
On the last day of October, we dress the kids up in old sheets, black bin liners and plastic fangs, and send them down the street to extort sweets from our neighbours. A few days later, we gather around a bonfire, set off rockets and celebrate the execution of a Catholic conspirator. The following month, we get together with our birth families to exchange gifts, to eat too much and to argue.
And that’s about it.
Not that he wants to be a Druid or anything: “Druids parading at Stonehenge seem to me as contrived as Morris dancers.” But there is a lack.
For American culture, I suggest, the Fourth of July takes the place of midsummer, falling less than two weeks later, and being a time for family and community gathering, feasting, and loud noises.
The current newsletter of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism is available for download. In it, some of the members discuss their current doctoral work. It is always interesting to see how new scholars are formulating just exactly what “esoteric studies” covers.
On the one hand, you often hear that the field has now matured, but when you look for some of the signs that characterise a mature academic field it is hard to see them in practice. I am particularly thinking of the lack of agreement on fundamental issues, such as ”what is it”, ”how do we study it”, ”what’s its importance”, and ”how is it related to the broad spectrum of human activity”. If you pick up the three most popular introduction books to the field, you’ll find three very different ways of handling these fundamental questions.
Kocku von Stuckrad, an established scholar but still “younger” in academic terms, makes the comparison:
It is a kind of identity work that I perceive in the study of esotericism, but also in ”pagan studies” and related fields of research. This identity work often leads to a neglect of critical methodological reflection, which I find problematic. What we need is an active collaboration with as many colleagues as possible, no matter whether or not we like their definitions of esotericism, in order to build up networks that can make research into these historical and cultural dynamics sustainable for the future. If we study these phenomena as part of the cultural history of Europe and North America, in an increasingly globalized perspective, we will be able to integrate the field of Western esotericism” in larger research structures and critical scholarship. This will also help students who enroll in our programs to find a job after their studies.
More resources in the newsletter about courses and research opportunities, chiefly in Britain and the Netherlands.
“The Battle of Britain” usually refers to the German bombing campaign during the summer of 1940, planned to lead into a seaborne invasion across the English Channel.
Gerald Gardner claimed that the “Southern Coven” performed a ritual in the New Forest at Lammas 1940 against the threatened invasion. Based on my reading of the evidence, or lack thereof, I don’t think that this ritual took place as he described it.
Nevertheless, telling about the ritual fifteen years after it supposedly happened was part of his claim that Wicca was an indigenous British religion that could repel the “foreign invader,” Christianity. (And if alive today, Gardner would probably add Islam as well to the list of invaders.)
Whereas we have only Gardner’s after-the-fact claim that the Lammas 1940 ritual occurred, another esoteric group was indeed fighting Nazi Germany on the astral plane—Dion Fortune’s Fraternity of the Inner Light.
The authors describe how Fortune’s group conceived of their magical battle, designed to strengthen British will power and stop the invasion, even if its effects are hard to quantify compared to those of the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, and the Army.
Some of her followers believe that the workings ruined her health, leading to her death a few years later.
And they quote a well-known scholar of esotericsm who comes to this conclusion:
Possibly such tales of magical warfare are simply one of the ways, as esoteric scholar Professor Wouter Hanegraaff describes, in “which magicians seek to legitimate magic to the wider society as well as to themselves” in the modern era.
As the British archaeologist Stuart Piggott pointed out back in the 1960s, there are no texts written about Druids by Druids. The sum of what ancient writers of the Greco-Roman world wrote would fill a few typed sheets—and many of those writers never saw a Druid.
Miranda Aldhouse-Green’s approach, however, is to look at the archaeological evidence, chiefly from Britain and France, and then reason like this: If the archaeology shows elaborate grave construction, or evidence of repeated sacrifices (including human) at a special site, or temple construction, or burials of certain high-status individuals who were not necessarily kings or queens, then that level of religious complexity implies that there were religious specialists to administer it.
And if we try to describe those religious specialists—using primarily Caesar’s writings and those of Tacitus, but also other writers who actually met Druids or their descendants in Gallo-Roman society—then we can probably assume that they were the Druids. She writes,
In order to make any sense of the Druids as a powerful class of religious leads we can examine contemporary material culture for, if they did exist in Caesar’s day, the Druids would have operated within a context of regalia, ritual equipment, sacrifice, and sacred places (xvi).
Much of the book, therefore, discusses ancient sacred sites, excavated burials, artifacts, etc., leading to open-ended questions on the line of “Do these artifacts mark this as the grave of a Druid?”
Generally these seem to be reasonable inferences, although even if one could be sure that it was the grave of a Druid, for example, that still says nothing about what that Druid thought, believed, or did. So often the texts that claim to answer those questions come from a writer who lived at the other end of the Mediterranean Sea from the nearest Druid.
Nevertheless, it is a thought-provoking book. I had not realized the extent of the archaeological evidence that could be brought out and associated at least hypothetically with the Druids.
Her evidence of religious practice in the space between Roman and Gallic or British ways is most fascinating, for it would suggest perhaps that “Druidism” changed and evolved when in contact with the Roman world and Roman religion. (Despite what happened on Anglesey [Mona] in 60 CE, not all Druids were ever killed.)
It’s never easy to account for fashion, but perhaps some real factors have contributed to the reading matter of 2010. This last year has seen a world-wide fear of a destructive plague, in the shape of swine flu. The court of our leader has grown increasingly suspicious, withdrawn and riddled with the sort of plots usually termed Byzantine. The coffers are empty, and an expensive foreign war against parts of the Muslim world has to be paid for somehow. It all sounds a little bit medieval, and that is what we’ve been reading about.
Other disasters have been weighing heavily on our minds, and refer back directly to the Middle Ages. In the climate change debate, both sceptics and proponents have spent a lot of time debating the significance for our own times of two parts of the period. The first is what has been termed the Medieval Warm Period, from between 800 to 1300, the second the Little Ice Age that followed it. Those in the Christopher Booker and George Monbiot camp, one which blames humans for climate change, have spent a lot of heated discussion dwelling on these facts, and the debate has found its way into creative works in surprising ways. We think about future catastrophe as a consequence of our past sins in very medieval ways.
In this new book I have taken that argument further and related it to a classical anthropological debate on mystical mentality; and I have also explored the nature of reality in relation to an inspirited world, developing a new methodology of magic from my own experiences, as well as those of others.
The “Luhrmann effect” mentioned by the interviewer refers to the backlash against anthropologists expressed by some British Witches and ceremonial magicians whose practices were discussed by anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann in her 1988 book, Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft.
Writer Cole Morton advances the “fastest-growing religion” meme, promoted also by the Pagan Federation:
The Pagan Federation, which aims to represent all “followers of a polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion”, claims the number of adherents has trebled at least. That would mean there were 360,000 committed, practising pagans, putting them ahead of the Sikhs (329,000) and fourth behind Hindus (552,000), Muslims (1.5 million) and Christians (42 million, according to the census).
English Heritage was established by the National Heritage Act 1983 as the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England. It is the Government’s statutory adviser on the historic environment. English Heritage (EH) receives around three quarters of its income from the Exchequer in the form of Grant in Aid (£129.4 million in 2007/2008). The remainder (£49.2 million) is self generated from commercial activities and fund raising. English Heritage’s role is to champion and care for the historic environment.
EH Commissioners receive an allowance which directly reflects the level of responsibilities undertaken, such as chairing an Advisory Committee and/or duties as a regional Commissioner. The remuneration range is currently £4,030 to £9,200 per annum.
Given all the controversies over ancient megalithic monuments in particular (although Hutton is equally an expert on the 17th century, the English Civil War, etc.), I am waiting to hear if he will be concerning himself primarily with the management of Avebury, Stonehenge, etc.