Conference on Current Pagan Studies 4: Albrecht Auditorium

Jeffrey Albaugh drawing a winning raffle ticket for something from Equinox Publishing.

Part 1: The Southwest Chief

Part 2: Holing up in Claremont

Part 3: Harper Hall

I titled this post because my friend Jeffrey Albaugh, one of the conference organizers, more than once admitted that he just loved saying “Albrecht Auditorium.” It’s a German given name and surname and also connects to “Alberich,” the dwarf who guards a treasure in Wagner’s operatic cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen.

On the opening day, Saturday, January 25th, I admit that among the various talks on dealing with bad changes — extinctions, elections, end times— the one talk that really stuck with me was Murtagh anDoile’s “With a Whimper, not a Bang: The ‘Death’ of Pagan and Magical Traditions.” It put me in mind of a talk that I had with my friend Evan John Jones (English witch, member of Robert Cochrane’s coven in the mid-1960s), who said that on his death, all his Craft-related papers were supposed to be burnt.

From my vantage point, a very long way away, I do not know what happened. As a writer, John left behind at least some records that deserve to be archived. Maybe not everything, but some things.

This is not the Pagan studies conference (photo: Claremont Graduate University).

At any rate, the Albrecht Auditorium is an up-to-date lecture hall at Claremont Graduate University, with lots of elbow room, AC and USB chargers at every seat, and other good stuff. So when I finally had to stand up and fill an hour on the history of Pagan studies and some things that I would like to see more covered in the future, it was a pleasure to be in that room.

It was a good conference where you could hear thoughtful Pagans discuss our response to some of the Big Issues — and like all conferences, the best parts were in the restaurants and bars afterwards! But about about 6:30 on Sunday evening I had to pry myself from the big table at Packing House Wines (in the same complex as Augie’s Coffee, where my Claremont visit began) and accept a ride from a conference-goer who was headed east through San Bernardino anyway.

The train rolled in on time. I had booked a roomette (sleeper) because I knew I would be tired. I dropped my bags, went to the dining car for supper (included), and when I came back the attendant had my bed made up, into which I fell.

Around 2 a.m. an announcement from the conductor woke me (and everyone else).  A man in my car was having an acute asthma attack. “Does anyone have an EpiPen?)”

I thought for a moment — I did not have my first-aid kit with me, so I could not even offer pseudopehedrine. And does a Wilderness First Aid card let you give drugs? I think so, if they are over-the-counter things like that. But I had none. Twenty minutes later we were stopped in Kingman, Arizona, and as another passenger told me at breakfast, the ambulance was waiting and took him away.

And thus on across New Mexico and southern Colorado, where I retrieved the Jeep at the railway station and drove home at night through an increasing snowstorm, past the signs that warn that roads are not plowed after 5 p.m.

Conference on Current Pagan Studies 3: Harper Hall

A cup of the free hotel coffee, and Black Philip and I are ready to conference deliciously.

Part 1: The Southwest Chief

Part 2: Holing up in Claremont

It was a 20-minute walk from the hotel to Claremont Graduate University, where the Conference on Current Pagan Studies rents space during CGU’s winter break. CGU is one of the seven “Claremont Colleges” — five undergrad, two graduate schools — that together form a “collegiate university.” Six of them share a campus with a combined library and other facilities. Pomona College, the oldest, dates from 1887; the others were founded in the 1920s, which must have been when Claremont shifted from “citrus town” to residential suburb of Los Angeles.

Walking to CGU, I did not see anything that resembled a “student ghetto,” which made me wonder if there is such a thing as off-campus housing, or if those students must all commute.

No, definitely not the “student ghetto.”


Was I on the right street? I looked at some license plates. Yes, this must be the right building.

When Fritz Muntean started The Pomegranate in 1997, its subtitle was “A New Journal of Neopagan Thought.” That approach fits this conference too, and in fact, a new online journal is in the works that will take up that strand of Pagan publishing, I was told. More on that when I learn more.

The conference draws a mixture of older and younger Pagan academics, at least one outside PhD student researching Paganism in academia, some writers, some original West Coast Pagan figures from the 1960s–70s, and other members of the (chiefly) West Coast Pagan community.

The difference between this and the American Academy of Religion Pagan studies sessions that I am used to is that there is less of a sense of working on issues in the larger world(s) of religious studies and more a sense of telling our own stories, working on our own issues (like what happens to archives when groups shut down?), examining our origin stories, and talking about what is changing.

The first day’s venue: CGU’s Harper Hall, a fine example of 1930s Romano-Californian architecture.

Conference attendees begin to gather in the CGU Board of Trustees room, a comfortable space with open doors onto a courtyard — but pretty soon there were chairs jammed everywhere.

Part 4: Albrecht Auditorium

Conference on Current Pagan Studies 2: Holing Up in Claremont

Sunrise scene, Claremont station.

Part 1: The Southwest Chief

After killing time at Augie’s Coffee, I faced a mile walk through bosky Claremont to the hotel, but because of the roller bag, I gave in and summoned a Lyft driver. No need to put extra wear on the little plastic wheels. That is my story, and I am sticking to it.

Expecting to be told that my room would not be ready until 2 p.m., I was happy to learn that I could have it right there at 8:30 a.m. I could sleep! Only I could not. Exercise is good, so I did walk about a mile to a copy-print shot to get fliers made up promoting The Pomegranate and Jefferson Calico’s excellent new book on Heathenry, Being Viking.

I spotted a Trader Joe’s grocery near the hotel, and picked up a sandwich and a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck.1)Charles Shaw wine, the grocery chain’s house brand, is priced at $1.99 for 750 ml, the same as a small bottle of water at the hotel. Now which is a better deal? Half a bottle gone, I finally slept.

Later, I spent the evening re-reading parts of George Hanson’s The Trickster and the Paranormal (2001). This is not an easy book. Hanson was a paid university parapsychology researcher, one of a “club” of about fifty such people in the United States. As he points out, the budget of one paranormal-themed Hollywood movie is bigger than the budgets of all the programs such as his.

The book is not an easy read. It goes into lots of area: sociological theory, history of paranormal researched, history and personalities of the professional skeptics (think CSICOP), the prevalence of cheating by psychics, etc. Hanson wonders why, when at least half of the population accepts some level of “psi” phenomena, it is so completely off the table for academic researchers. Likewise, scholars of religion are all about texts, not “woo.” They would rather discuss gender theory than people’s experience with divine power. (Hint: part of the problem is monotheism and the idea of a transcendent god who is outside of the cosmos.)

There are exceptions, my favorite being Jeffrey Kripal at Rice University. I want to blog about some of his newer work . . one of these days.

And so to bed, because the next two days would be wall-to-wall sociability.

Part 3: Harper Hall

Notes   [ + ]

1. Charles Shaw wine, the grocery chain’s house brand, is priced at $1.99 for 750 ml, the same as a small bottle of water at the hotel. Now which is a better deal?

Conference on Current Pagan Studies 1: The Southwest Chief

Off-season, the train was only half full, which meant that there were armchairs and tables for the taking in the lounge car. I bought a beer at the snack bar downstairs and watched northern New Mexico go past.

I was honored this year to be asked to give a keynote address at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies.1)The other keynoter was the feminist writer and poet Judy Grahn. Yes, the website badly needs an upgrade. For journeys under 500 miles — and sometimes more — I would rather drive. If the trip is longer, I look first to see if Amtrak will get me there. If all else fails, I end up jammed into a metal cylinder with a bunch of strangers, which is about as much fun as being stuck in an elevator.

Southern Colorado to southern California is a combination of the first two — drive a bit, and then catch Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, get off in San Bernardino, and catch a Metrolink commuter train west to Claremont, where the conference was to be held at Claremont Graduate University.

Santo Domingo Pueblo, north of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I booked a coach seat on the way out, which would be easier on the organizers’ travel budget ($112), and used Amtrak reward points to get a roomette (sleeper) on the way back.2)The best way to accrue reward points is to use Amtrak’s Guest Rewards Mastercard.

Understand that a coach seat on the train is huger than first-class on an airplane. Muchly huger. You have a foot rest and a leg rest. You can recline your seat without bashing the passenger behind you. Smart passengers bring a small blanket and a pillow and make themselves quite comfortable.

Refueling in Albuquerque. Basically, one locomotive pulls the train while the other powers all the onboard electrical systems — refrigeration, HVAC, toilets, lights, etc.

Me, I had a warm jacket, but I forgot the inflatable neck pillow, So it goes. I made myself comfortable, stretched across two seats—the car was only half-full. After a burger at the station snack bar in Albquerque, followed by a little whiskey from my flask, I opened an episode of the Strange Familiars podcast on my phone and rode west into the night.

I usually can sleep anywhere, but not this time. I don’t blame all the podcast discussion of fairy orbs, Bigfoot, “hell gates,” ghosts, etc., but rather the fact that I would have to get off at 5:30 a.m. I knew that either the coach attendant or the conductor would make sure that I made my stop.3)I had ridden this way multiple times before, but always getting off at Fullerton or else Los Angeles Union Station, in the daylight. They are usually good about that. But the monkey mind would not settle down. So when the conductor came down the dimly lit aisle, I was already sitting there with my jacket zipped and my carry-on bag at hand, watching the highway next to us.

You know you are in southern California when the freeway traffic — in the dark, at 5:30 a.m. — is already stop-and-go. The train whistles on past, into the San Bernardino station, a Mission-style edifice four times bigger than it needs to be. (Did the town ever need that station?) Across the tracks is a huge intermodal operation, acres of bright lights and freight containers being stacked onto rail cars.

For a kind of California-gothic touch — think of an abandoned amusement park — the “information booth” on the platform is staffed by this static mannequin, like the old coin-operated “Madame Esmeralda Tells Your Fortune” arcade machines. If you drop in a quarter, will he tell you when the next train is coming? Nope.

On the platform,  a robot voice reminds you that “We care.” It’s about a suicide hotline.

Meanwhile, the pre-dawn students and commuters line the platform, staring at their coffee cups or into the middle distance, until the brightly-lit double-decker Metrolink train rattles in and, after forty minutes, deposits me at Claremont station on its way west to Los Angeles.

The chessboard is at the far left end of the counter.

I’ve done my research: about four blocks away is a coffeehouse that advertises it opens at 6 a.m., and it is now 6:30. I walk into Augie’s Coffee, which sets a high bar for industrial-spartan design, with walls of hexagonal tiles like a 1920s bathroom. The baristas interrupt their chess game (Awww!) to get me a cappuccino and chocolate croissant. Outside, the palm trees are turning from black-and-white and color. I am here.

Next stop: Claremont, California

Notes   [ + ]

1. The other keynoter was the feminist writer and poet Judy Grahn. Yes, the website badly needs an upgrade.
2. The best way to accrue reward points is to use Amtrak’s Guest Rewards Mastercard.
3. I had ridden this way multiple times before, but always getting off at Fullerton or else Los Angeles Union Station, in the daylight.

“Pagans,” a Short Documentary Film


Oooh, scary Pagans! We spend a lot of time with the curtains drawn, gazing at candles, right. We wear black robes . . .  Seriously, there is some good stuff here: Pagans, a short documentary.

To tell the story of the dramatic rise of neo-paganism in America, though, you quickly run into a roadblock. “No two pagans seem to agree on the same definition” of paganism, Iqbal Ahmed, who spent two years researching a large community of pagans in Southern California for his short documentary Pagans, told me. Because of this confusion, Ahmed said, “it’s no wonder that relatively informed laypeople might have still have misconceptions about paganism.”

In fact, Ahmed came to the world of paganism with his own set of preconceived notions. “Paganism conjured images of ’80s films about satanic cults,” he said. “I envisioned blood rituals, pentagrams, and hedonism.” Pagans, which is featured on The Atlantic today, aims to dispel some of this haze. By focusing on an intimate community of pagans who live within 200 miles of one another and often worship together, Ahmed’s film showcases paganism’s diversity of people and beliefs. “I found pagans of every ilk,” Ahmed said. Among his film’s subjects are teachers, social workers, and PTA members who engage in various pre-Christian practices steeped in ceremony and superstition.

Witchcraft Cycles and the Official Witch of LA

“Official Witch” Louise Huebner with Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, late 1960s.

Jason Mankey’s Raise the Horns blog (in the sidebar) carries his look back over the previous decade, “Paganism & Witchcraft in the 2010’s.” I urge you to read it.

I would like to add just a little bit of nuance to one passage:

Until recently Modern Witchcraft was generally tied into some sort of spiritual system. Most of the self-identified Witches I knew twenty years ago talked at least a little about the sabbats or maybe “the Goddess.” Today that’s no longer really the case and “Witchcraft” seems to be associated more simply with just “magic.” There are some who will argue that it’s always been that way, but I disagree. Books on Witchcraft emphasized a variety of different things, a lot of today’s Witchcraft simply focuses on magickal practice.

Apparently I am one who disagrees, because it feels like we are swinging back to the 1960s–1970s, when there were books out on witchcraft that had nothing to do with Wicca; in fact, few people have ever heard of Wicca. But everyone has heard of witchcraft.

To continue ….

I interviewed Amanda Yates Garcia recently and read her book, much of her story was familiar to me because we are of a similar age, however . . . With the exception of Michael Hughes I didn’t know any of the people who blurbed her book (rare for me in the Witch-world), and I’m pretty sure Yates Garcia and I have never been to the same event. That’s not a knock on her (or I hope, me), just an example of the two parallel Witchcraft worlds that exist today. She’s operating in a different sphere than I am on Patheos and at Llewellyn, and that’s OK, but it seems more common today than it did 20 years ago.

Here again,we have cycled around. Amanda Yates Garcia immediately reminded me of Louise Huebner (1930–2014), who got herself named Official Witch of Los Angeles County in 1968. Here is her story how how it happened.

She claimed to have learned witchcraft from her mother and grandmother. Someone has put her 1969 album Seduction through Witchcraft up on YouTube, so you can experience it yourself. Different media, same shtick, am I right?

“A lot of today’s Witchcraft simply focuses on magickal practice”? That is true and probably will continue to be true.

The Anthropology Cult at CIIS

Some people in the Pagan studies field have a special place in their hearts for the California Institute of Integral Studies. This memoir (about events a decade ago) might help to explain why. It’s a “never been told story.”

We showed up willing and able to do whatever it took for the cause. Angana exploited us beyond recognition. She effectively used jargon and the discourse to force us to restructure, brutally interrogate and dismantle our sense of self in the most pathological way possible. It’s a classic cult grooming technique; it just so happened that the languaging in this cult used social justice concepts.

The Dark Side of Avalon

Two years ago I mentioned that author Moira Greyland, daughter of enormously influential1)Especiallly to Pagans over 35, more or less fantasy writer Marion Zimmer Bradley and Walter Breen, was speaking out about sexual abuse she experienced in their household.

Now you can read the book:The Last Closet: The Dark Side of Avalon.

From “CT,” one of the reader-reviewers at Amazon:

As a science fiction and fantasy author myself, I grew up with Marion Zimmer Bradley as an embodiment of the kind of progressive feminist ideal which was used as an encouragement for young women to aspire to while young men should follow the example of in their own writing. I all but memorized The Mists of Avalon and considered it a guide to neo-paganism, re-evaluating old stories for modern consumption, and writing female characters. The discovery Marion Zimmer Bradley covered for her pedophile husband in preying on the children of science fiction fans was stunning but not as much as the discovery she, herself, was an abusive sexual predator.

UPDATE 23 Dec. 2017: Another blogger: “The Book that Made Me a Feminist Was Written by an Abuser.”

Notes   [ + ]

1. Especiallly to Pagans over 35, more or less

I Lived in Magic: A Video Biography of Oberon Zell

Produced and directed by Danny Yourd (Animal Studio), this meditative interview with Oberon Zell (co-founder of the Church of All Worlds and the man who put “Neo-Pagan” into the American religious vocabulary in the 1970s) is a valuable piece of American Pagan history. (It can also be viewed at the Vimeo site.)

Interspersed with video clips from the 1970s, 1980s, and on to the present — including the quixotic New Guinea mermaid quest — it pivots on his relationship with his life partner, the late Morning Glory Zell. (Their lives are also examined in John Sulak’s  The Wizard and the Witch: Seven Decades of Counterculture, Magick & Paganism, which might be the best inside look at the American Pagan scene ever written.)

Oberon reflects on his life, on his loss of Morning Glory, but he is not giving up. “Don’t let it die,” were among her last words, and so the grey-haired wizard carries on. I know that he will do so until he is gone, and something like the mythic cry of Merlin is heard in the redwoods of California.