Mircea Eliade, Witches, and Fascists

Initiated: Memoir of a Witch, by Amanda Yates Garcia, is a gritty story of growing up as a second-generation Pagan wtich in coastal California. I am partway through it, encountering passages like this: “We go into the underworld to reclaim the integrity of our lineage, to snatch it back from the hands of those who had taken it from us. Sometimes those takers are our own kin,our own blood, ourselves, our Ereshkigals.”  This is one that I want to read slowly and carefully — and as I keep saying, we need more Pagan autobiography.

Amanda Yates Garcia, Oracle of Los Angeles

Amanda Yates Garcia

Her mother was a feminist witch in the orbit of Reclaiming, the group that Starhawk founded. The daughter, however, is even more fiercely anti-patriarchal and, unlike her Unitarian/Reclaiming mother, who “always saw [witchcraft] as a practice of devotion,” Yates Garcia has turned pro — she is the Oracle of Los Angeles.”(“Book a session.”)

Early in her memoir, she quotes the famous historian of religion Mircea Eliade:

In his book Rites and Symbols of Initiation, anthropologist [sic] Mircea Eliade says that puberty initiations usually begin with an act of rupture. The child is separated from her mother. Persephone is dragged down to Hades. A brutal process. Yet in Ancient Greece, the Eleusinian Mysteries were rites of initiation almost everyone chose to perform.

Mircea Eliade, 1950s (?). He seems always to be smoking cigarettes in his photos.

Who Was Mircea Eliade?

Eliade lived from 1907–1986. Through the 1940s and 1950s he described himself as a “wandering scholar,” he and his first wife literally homeless but staying with this friend or that.  Had he returned to his native Romania, the Communist government would have imprisoned him or worse. In the late 1950s he was hired at the University of Chicago, where he helped build a highly influential religious-studies department. At least two of my own professors studied there and knew him, and he came to CU-Boulder a couple of times to guest-lecture in the early 1980s.1)I got to hear him only once, however, and he was quite frail then, with only a year or so to live.

Seeing him quoted in a 2019 book, therefore, is a sign that his name is one to conjure with, that he is an authority to cite. Inside the field of religious studies, the story is more complicated. It has to do with a “civil war” in that discipline that has gone on for a long time and may never end.

In which Micea Eliade “Has Links”

A recent article in the journal Religions by a writer from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, accuses Eliade of “influence” on the current far-right or alt-right. He is a “spiritual source.”2)Mark Weitzman, “‘One Knows the Tree by the fruit That It Bears’: Mircea Eliade’s Influence on Current Far-Right Ideology.

As a writer, Mark Weitzman is way too fond of constructions in which Person A “has links” to Person B. (Cue the menacing music.) The phrase “has links” can mean anything or nothing: it is empty of actual meaning, but it sounds important. Overusing it is poor journalism and poor scholarship.

For example, as editor of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, I have published articles from all over: India, Russia, Poland, France, Belgium, UK, Israel, Australia, Latvia, Canada, USA . . .  I know only a fraction of these scholars face-to-face, yet to a politicized writer like Mark Weitzman, I “have links” to all of them. And if any of them have the “wrong” political philosphy, well, now I “have links” to that as well. Sheesh.

Unlike openly “New Right” intellectuals like Alain de Benoist, for instance, Eliade died 34 years ago, a highly respected figure. Why him, why now? Why does Weitzman clalm that his reputation is “indelibly stained”? Weitzman admits that even if some alt-right figures name-drop Eliade — even as Amanda Yates Garcia does name-drops him in connection with witchcraft — that name-dropping may merely be “an attempt to gain intellectual credibility.”

But there is more to the story. Let’s start with his childhood in Bucharest, Romania.

Romania’s Homegrown Fascists, pre–World War Two

Romania’s history is complicated. In historic times, it has been all or partly within the Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, the kingdom of Transylvania, the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the Hapsburg Monarchy, some smaller principalities, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which Romania opposed in World War One. Romania became a constitutional monarchy in 1918, when Eliade was 11 years old. The new government was somewhat democratic, but you cannot say the county had many democratic traditions!

When Eliade was young, a lot of energy went into questions of “After all this foreign domination, who is truly is a Romanian?” “What is Romania?” “Must you be an Orthodox Christian to be a Romanian?” “Should the schools teach only in the Romanian language?” (Others, including Hungarian, were also spoken.)

Gheorghe Eliade

Eliade’s father, Gheorghe, a hawk-nosed gent with a cavalryman’s moustache, had changed the family’s name to “Eliade,” related to the Greek Helios, symbolizing the rising sun of a  potential new nation in the 19th century.

For a young intellectual in the late 1920s and early 1930s, political change was in the air. Benito Mussolini (widely admired in the West, at least at first) was modernizing Italy with his Fascist ideology—should Romania take that path? But what about spirituality? What about a national literature? It was all a swirl.

One group said they had the answers: The Legion of Saint Michael the Archangel, later to be known as the Iron Guard and including the “Everything for the Country” Party.3)It is true that some of Legion’s insignia have been copied by contemporary alt-right types who probably could not say “Hello” in Romanian. The legion was anti-capitalist, anti-Communist, and pro-Orthodox Christianity.

Wikipedia’s article on the Legion notes that

Even before the Great Depression, Romanian universities were producing far more graduates than the number of available jobs and the Great Depression had further drastically limited the opportunities for employment by the intelligentsia, who turned to the Iron Guard out of frustration . . . . The Great Depression seemed to show the literal bankruptcy of these [National Liberal Party] policies and many of the younger Romanian intelligentsia, especially university students, were attracted by the Iron Guard’s glorification of “Romanian genius” and its leaders who boasted that they were proud to speak Romanian.

Mircea Eliade about age 30 — definitely not a street-fighter revolutionary.

I suppose all that attracted young Eliade, who after studying at the University of Calcutta in India and earning a PhD for his work on yoga, had returned to his home country. But he was always a bookish type, not a street-fighter. The Legion was openly antisemitic; he spoke against that, but the idea of spiritual national renewal still kept him interested, as I see it.

In 1938, after economic downtowns and political turmoil, the king dissolved all political parties and iinstuted a royalist dictatorship. Eliade had lost his university teaching job in 1936 amid the turmoil of the times, and in 1938, when King Carol attacked the Legion, he was scooped up in the mass arrests, sent to jail and then a prison camp from July to November.4)Some of the leaders were “shot while trying to escape.” Writer friends helped him to get the post of cultural attaché in the Romanian embassy in London and later the embassy in Lisbon, where he sat out World War Two in neutral Portugal. “At the age of thirty-three, I left the country with empty hands,” he later wrote.5)Mircea Eliade, No Souvenirs: Journal 1957–1969 (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 18. I read “with empty hands” metaphorically, meaning,that he abandoned his old political stance as well — he had dropped his “baggage.”

King Carol was replaced by a German-backed military dictatorship in 1941. Romanians fought alongside Germans on the Eastern Front, but after Germany’s defeat, the Communists took over from 1944–1989.

Unable to go home, Eliade found postwar employment teaching in France and later the United States.

If Mircea Eliade is Accused of Fascist Leanings, Who Benefits?

Jonathan Z. Smith. Yes, people often compared his look to Gandalf (Wikipedia).

Eliade was a huge name in religious studies in the 1960s and 1970s, but there was a scholarly backlash against his top-down comparative and structuralist methods and his invocation of universal homo religiousus, the archaetypal transcultural religious person. A new generation of scholars that still respected his work began to critique parts of it, such as Jonathan Z Smith (1938–2017), who himself would go on to hold the endowed Mircea Eliade Chair in history of religions at Chicago.

Eliade knew who his real intellectual opponents were, however. In 1960 he wrote, “To think like a materalist or a Marxist means giving up the primordial vocation of man.”6)Ibid., 86. If I understand Eliade, he means by that vocation that humans to seek transcendence, to break somehow the bonds of earthly life through encounter with a Sacred dimension. He admits that he has “[taken] a position against the myth of the Earth Mother.”7)Ibid. 79.

Who does this talk of “primordial vocation” offend? That significant group of Marxist-influenced religion scholars who reject all talk of “the Sacred,” “the transcendental” or “the supernatural,” and who instead want to intepret all “religious” activity as human power games.

One leading figure of this group is Russell T. McCutcheon (b. 1961), a Canadian scholar now teaching at the U. of Alabama. In his 1997 book Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia, he devotes a chapter to cutting Eliade off at the knees.8)Which, granted, is how scholarship often proceeds. He is not “concerned primarily with scrutinizing Eliade’s theoretical writings in the light of his early political involvement” (74, emphasis added). He wishes to argue that all defenses of Eliade’s methods and books are theoretically weak and based on the false idea that there is something called “religion” that is “above” human power games. Any thinker who is “anti-modernist” is suspect, in McCutcheon’s view.

In essence, associating Eliade’s mature work with some kind of lingering fascism gives McCutcheon and others a powerful lever to use against someone whom they think is studying religion the “wrong” way, a way that is “ahistoric, apolitical, fetishized, and sacrosanct.” There is no Sacred! Another scholar of similar bent wrote a blog post titled “Urinal Talk at the AAR,” where he sneered at some of the New Testament scholars who make up a big bloc of the American Academy of Religion’s membership:

After a session today I raced to the bathroom to relieve my bladder and overheard a group of individuals coming from another session declaring the following: “Wow; that was so wonderful” “Best session ever!”  “That was incredible!”

Then, most importantly, “You know, that wasn’t even the AAR—that was church!”

And we wonder why others are suspicious that the academic study of religion is actually religious in nature.

In conclusion, whether or not any members of the alt-right “have links” to Eliade is not the the long-term problem.9)Whatever it is today, the factious and fissiparous alt-right will probably morph into something else. The problem is an ongoing split in the study of religion, between those who might accept a religious or spiritual claim—even while “bracketing it out” of their scholarly work—and those who reject anything transcental and question whether there even is anything called “religiion” once you shine a light on it.

For his voume of work and subsequent effect on scholarship, Eliade remains a major figure. But to the materialists, his view of life as containing spiritual seeking is suspect in and of itself. (Apparently, only fascists go on spiritual quests.) He is a big boulder in the road, and to clear the road for the progress of materialism, any tool will do.

Yet for writers like Amanda Yates Garcia, he remains an authority, one of few scholars of religion who is known outside the academy.

Notes   [ + ]

1. I got to hear him only once, however, and he was quite frail then, with only a year or so to live.
2. Mark Weitzman, “‘One Knows the Tree by the fruit That It Bears’: Mircea Eliade’s Influence on Current Far-Right Ideology.
3. It is true that some of Legion’s insignia have been copied by contemporary alt-right types who probably could not say “Hello” in Romanian.
4. Some of the leaders were “shot while trying to escape.”
5. Mircea Eliade, No Souvenirs: Journal 1957–1969 (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 18. I read “with empty hands” metaphorically, meaning,that he abandoned his old political stance as well — he had dropped his “baggage.”
6. Ibid., 86.
7. Ibid. 79.
8. Which, granted, is how scholarship often proceeds.
9. Whatever it is today, the factious and fissiparous alt-right will probably morph into something else.

Beavering Away at Home

beaver ponds10-13Once in a while, I like to note that Hardscrabble Creek is a real place. The beaver pair had kits this year, and they also expanded their dams from two to five. A couple of years ago, they left because they had eaten all the available deciduous forage, mostly narrowleaf cottonwood and willows. Will the rising water table encourage more beaver-edible trees to grow? (They don’t eat pines.) Can they keep expanding their string of dams upstream?

And here are some links:

¶ At Occult Chicago, Rik traces sites associated with Thee Church of Satan in the 1970s.

¶  Artforum notes the recent Occult Humanities Conference: Contemporary Art and Scholarship on the Esoteric Traditions.

¶ Anton Lavey’s daughter Zeena describes how her Halloween experience when she was a little girl living with her father, the founder of the Church of Satan.

For the first quarter century of my life, back when I was the devil’s defender, Halloween wasn’t the fun and merriment it was for many others.

¶ Oh no! I bought the Halloween candy, but I forgot to pray over it!

Oceania Has Always Been at War with Lemuria

51119-243x366The Los Angeles Review of Books offers a review of two books on Ray Palmer, the Shaver Mystery, and pulp-esoteric publishing of the 1940s–50s: The War Over Lemuria and The Man from Mars : Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey.

From the review:

Of course, the underground worlds of Richard Shaver did not spring full grown from his brain, no matter how fevered it might have been. Subterranean adventure has long been a staple of science-fiction. Even more to the point, the belief in the existence of subterranean civilizations itself has a long history, and not just among the ancients who believed in one form or another of an underworld abode of the dead.  Indeed, there are other instances in which fictional stories about the underworld have been regarded by some readers as revealing a hidden, sometimes religious truth. The Shaver Mystery, it turns out, is not without precedent. John Cleve Symmes’s hollow-earth novel Symzonia (1820), Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril: The Power of the Coming Race (1871), and Willis George Emerson’s The Smokey God (1908) are all examples of fictional tales of underground civilizations that have been treated as true accounts and the source for religious belief by some members of the Theosophical and occult communities. Shaver’s stories are darker than the similar works that preceded them, but Palmer’s claim that Shaver’s tales contained truths about the hidden world under our feet is part of a long tradition.

Ray Palmer went on to found Fate magazine, which has done several retrospective articles on the Shaver Mystery over the years. Until 1988, Fate was published in Chicago, which just adds to that whole “occult Chicago” meme. (See also the work of occult journalist Brad Steiger.)

Journalism and the AAR-SBL

Journalists are few at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature’s joint annual meetings.  But the New York Times‘ Mark Oppenheimer, searching around for “the narrative,” noted that some fraction of the participants wore flowing robes and weirdly remarked about people carrying hefty reference books, as  Steven Ramey notes in his fisking of Oppenheimer’s reportage at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog. (My take: Oppenheimer saw books and just guessed at what they might be.)

My frustration at Oppenheimer’s representation of the AAR/SBL conference illustrates the limits to the descriptive aspect of both ethnographies and the news.

As for the Pagan studies sessions, no one from the Pagan Newswire Collective showed up, which might be a better thing than the sort of odd reporting that PNC produced last year in San Francisco. PNC is providing community news announcements in the regions that it covers, and  it has one pretty good blog, The Juggler. But I sense a loss of momentum.

Todd Berntson of Pagan Living TV, which is I think still in the start-up phase, attended the “Mapping the Occult City” pre-conference event and did some on-camera interviews with some of the presenters. I expect that that video will be available before long.

I know from my own reporter days that it is hard to attend a big meeting and get “the story.” You hope for a newsworthy keynote presenter, or maybe you find someone colorful to profile in a news feature.  “Mapping the Occult City” could have been presented as a documentary, since it included an architectural tour and a performance, as well as talking heads. Maybe at least those interviews will be archived some place.

A Day and a Night in Occult Chicago

A statue of the goddess Ceres tops the Chicago Board of Trade building, as seen from a classroom building at DePaul University.

For the third time in four years, we had a pre-conference event that tied into Pagan studies somehow. (Previously: Montréal, San Francisco.)

This was the Occult Chicago conference organized by Jason Winslade at DePaul University—his take on “Chicago Quarter,” an urban orientation class that all first-year DePaul students must take.

Imagine a bright new student who, however, does not know a Theosophist from a Chicago Bear. Suddenly she (who maybe just took this section because it fit her schedule) finds herself immersed in a world yogis, magicians, witches, astrologers, hucksters, publishers, and — this being Chicago — architecture.

Jason Winslade (black cap) points out the location of the former Chicago Masonic Temple on State Street, accompanied by “Occult Chicago” blogger Rik Garrett, right.

Those of us who attended the one-day version (see also Jason Pitzl-Waters’ review) heard some of the students’ capstone presentations, learned that the first skyscraper in Chicago was built by the Freemasons, listened to representatives of contemporary magical groups, and visited sites and building associated with occult organizations, hauntings, violent deaths, and publishing houses.

Mural on the tenth floor of the Fine Arts Building, Michigan Avenue, Chicago.

One highlight was the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave., where at one time the Thelemite Choronzon Club held its meetings and the Akbar Lodge of Theosophists had its office.

The Pookah (right)  and friends pursue the skeptical German professor in a Terra Mysterium skit.

Finally came a performance by the Terra Mysterium steampunk theatre troupe. You might think that a classroom would not make the best performance space, but the performance was laced with academic parody, so it worked.

Call For Papers, Presentations, Workshops, Rituals and Performances Mapping the Occult City: Exploring Magick and Esotericism in the Urban Utopia

A pre-conference for the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religions in Chicago, on Friday November 16, 2012, presented by Phoenix Rising Academy and DePaul University.

In his classic essay, “Walking in the City,” ethnologist and historian Michel de Certeau distinguished between the “exaltation of a scopic and gnostic drive” that comes from viewing the city from a high vantage point and the quotidian negotiations of the walker at street level, who creates his or her own map, takes shortcuts and resists the strategies of typical urban planning.

One perspective is totalizing and distancing, constructing an illusory, unified view of the metropolis, while the other seeks out hidden avenues of knowledge and intersections of stories, myths, and happenings. The occultist tends to shift between both views, sometimes spinning grand narratives of the city as a New Atlantis, a utopian civilization of knowledge and wonder, other times imagining a secret world of dark mysteries, unknown to most passersby, that lay just beyond the twilight of the streetlamps.

Many esotericists, conspiracy theorists, and urban fantasy authors have speculated on the occult meaning of symbols, monuments, and architecture in major cities, from Cleopatra’s Needle in London to the Washington Monument in Washington D.C. Or they see powerful sigils in the neon signs, building facades and billboards. Some speak of urban ley lines and “energy centers” that bubble with occult power ready to be tapped into by those with the right sense and ability. These energy centers are focused on geometric street patterns or the lines created by the placement of sacred sites in the city, such as churches, temples, and cemeteries. Others speak of haunted places, charged with story and legend, often full of the sense of violence, trauma and the urgency of events that occurred there.

Historically, cities have been home to countless esoteric groups who have met, planned, and conducted ritual within the towering buildings that glitter the metropolitan skyline.

For instance, Chicago, the location of this year’s AAR conference, was once the home of the 32 floor Masonic Building, owned by the Illinois Freemasons, and the tallest building in the world in 1892. Prominent figures in the esoteric world have spoken, performed and offered their wisdom to the masses through the many salons, lectures, performances, congregations, conferences, and world’s fairs that have been either publicly advertised or available only to those with the right password and invitation.

Cities are where the ideas of Western esotericism spread to the masses through these public events and the many urban publishing houses. Cities are also home to public events and happenings that connect the esoteric, the theatrical and the political world through protest and public actions and happenings, such as the W.I.T.C.H. protests at Chicago’s Federal Building on Halloween 1969.

Finally, cities are centers of diversity and diaspora and often become hothouses for the development of hybrid traditions based on immigrant cultures, such as Santeria and Vodun. For scholars of magick and esotericism, cities like Chicago can offer up rich resources for tracking group activities and events through library archives and public records.

Understanding occult life in the city, in both its historical and contemporary contexts, is crucial in mapping the proliferation of ideas and connections between practitioners and traditions. Popular practical texts have addressed how the practice of magick changes in an urban setting, especially when the magician or witch must adapt a nature-centered practice to a city-based practice.

nvestigating esoteric actions in the city can reveal the ways in which the practitioner is caught up and complicit with strategic structures of power while also offering possibilities for the occultist to resist those structures through the kind of tactical, magical moves described by de Certeau. As the Occupy movement and other political protests proliferate, especially in America’s election year, what are the possibilities for harnessing and directing the energy of the occult city?

Phoenix Rising Academy would like to explore these intersections of the esoteric and the urban, focusing on the city as a locus for power and knowledge, both hidden and revealed. Are cities oppressive entities that stifle creative and esoteric drives or do they hold in their structures the potential for powerful action? To this end, we invite scholars and practitioners to submit proposals for papers, presentations, rituals and performances that address these questions pertaining to the occult city.

Though our focus is primarily on American cities, particularly Chicago, we welcome explorations in other prominent global metropolitan centers. For this pre-conference, we plan on creating 2-3 panels of papers, presentations, performances, rituals, workshops, roundtables, or discussion groups.

Possible topics may include (but are not limited to)

• The activities of certain groups, traditions, and communities, both historical and contemporary, in particular cities.

• The city life of prominent esoteric figures and how that city life shaped their ideas and practices. · Particular events, meetings, lectures, performances, happenings, protests whose urban setting featured prominently in their execution and influence.

• The mythology of the occult city, based on legend, occult symbolism, and esoteric symbolism of architecture and urban planning.

• A practical approach to working magick and ritual in the city, perhaps based on Urban Shamanism or Chaos Magick.

• Interpretations of the city and its occult power by urban fantasy authors.

• The intersections of the occult and the political through the use of ritualized protest actions, focusing on setting and urban scene.

• Though not focusing on hauntings per se, an investigation of spiritualism, mysticism and psychic practices prominent in urban settings.

• A study of how hereditary or hybridized indigenous practices survive, evolve and adapt in an urban setting.

With your submission, please include the following: Presenter information (name, mailing and email addresses, phone number) Type of presentation (paper, non-paper presentation, workshop, performance, roundtable).

Note: if you are proposing a roundtable discussion, please submit info for all participants. Title and affiliation (institution, organization, independent scholar, or practitioner). Proposal or abstract (not to exceed 250 words). Should include title of presentation and a clear description of the presentation’s intent, plus any audio/visual needs. Biographical data (not to exceed 200 words).

Please email all submissions by August 20th to Dr. Jason L. Winslade, DePaul University, jwinslad@depaul.edu. Please include “PRA Pre-Conference” in the subject line. All submissions will be reviewed and you will be notified of a decision one week after the deadline