Being an “Oxbridge Scholar”

Yesterday’s mail brought my contributor’s copy of The Cambridge Handbook of Western Mysticism and Esotericism, to which I contributed an article on contemporary Paganism.

There ought to be a long German compound word for “fear of looking at something you wrote several years ago.”

The back cover of this hefty (2.5 lbs.; 958 g.) volume has the usual blurbs, such as this one from Jeffrey Kripal, whose work I admire: “[Editor] Glenn Magee has brought together a dream team of scholars . . . ”

Then, of course, the voice of doubt: “He didn’t mean you.” But I will take the reflected glory of some of the big names and rising stars in the field, people like Antoine Favre, Joscelyn Godwin, Olav Hammer, Wouter Hanegraaff, Egil Asprem, Hereward Tilton, Hugh Urban, Kocku von Stuckrad, Cathy Gutierrez, Lee Irwin, and many others.

Online, you can read the table of contents, front matter, and index.

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Meanwhile, I mentioned earlier my struggle to have Paganism capitalized in my entry on same for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion.

Some of its entries on are online at that link (not mine as yet). It is a religion nerd’s paradise. Right now the featured online article is “Festivals in Ancient Greece and Rome” by Fritz Graf. (In the entries I have looked at, no one else fought for the capital P.)

So it hit me that although I have yet to set foot at either of the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge, I have — in a small way — been published by both of their university presses. Sitting here in my little house in the pines, that is an odd and interesting thought.

Call for Papers: The Occult Imagination in Britain

Christine Ferguson and Andrew Radford, both of the University of Glasgow, seek contributors for an edited collection, The Occult Imagination in Britain, 1875-1947.

We seek proposals for an essay collection entitled The Occult Imagination in Britain, 1875-1947, to be proposed to Ashgate’s new Among the Victorians and the Modernists series. Focusing on the development, popular diffusion, and international networks of British occulture between 1875-1947, the interdisciplinary volume will capitalize on the recent surge of scholarly interest in the late Victorian occult revival by tracing the development of its central and residual manifestations through the fin de siècle and two world wars. We aim to challenge the polarization of Victorian and modernist occult art and practice into discrete expressions of either a nostalgic reaction to the crisis of faith or a radical desire for the new. The collection will also map the affinities between popular and elite varieties of occultism in this period, recognizing the degree to which esoteric activities and texts relied on and borrowed from the exoteric sphere.

Further details at this link.

Shai Feraro on Canaanite Reconstructionism

Israeli scholar Shai Feraro talks about Canannite (i.e., Pagan) reconstructionism in present-day Israel. This is an excerpt from his presentation at the recent conference of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism in Riga, Latvia. (Wish I could have been there.)

He makes a reference to the “Canaanites” who were not reconstructionists. That would be these “Canaanites.” Note that some members were fighters in the Irgun — and there is apparently a story there from the days of the Israeli struggle for independence. Basically, this movement wanted to form an Israeli/Hebrew identity that was separate from both Jewish religion and Zionism — a re-enchantment of the land.

(Video by Christian Giudice.)

Pentagram Pizza with Layers of Woo

pentagrampizza • Lydia Crabtree not only knows “woo,” she can organize it into a ten-part scale and a four-part diagram. Fascinating.

And there is a Part 2: “Parenting to the WooWoo.”

• Where did “the humanities” come from? Come travel back to the good old days of “philology.”

• Philology is not old enough for you? Relax with some Babylonian tunes.

Crowleyanity, Viewed with Alarm

If you thought that everything has been said about Aleister Crowley, think again.

There is Henrik Bogdan and Martin Starr’s new edited collection, Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism, which I have to buy.

Also on my reading list is Marco Pasi’s Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics. Had the universe moved slightly differently, I would have copyedited and thus read it, but now it must be bought.

And a blogger for First Things, a journal of [Christian] religion and politics, sits and notices something:

Crowley is not dead yet. If anything, he is more alive today than he was when he claimed to have created the “V for Victory” sign as a magical talisman against the Nazi swastika.

And a Crowley tattoo at the farmers market (photo at the link)!

Investigating a “Grandmother Story”

Robert Mathiesen and Theitic, The Rede of the Wiccae: Adriana Porter, Gwen Thompson and the Birth of a Tradition of Witchcraft (Providence, R.I.: Olympic Press, 2005), 167 pp., $17.95 (paper).Book cover of Rede of the Wiccae

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Gwen Thompson (Craft name of Phyllis Healy), 1928–1986, founded the New England Coven of Traditional Witches in the late 1960s. It went on to have various offshoots.

Central to her position as founder of the NECTW tradition was a “grandmother story.” She claimed to have been taught “the Old Religion” (in Margaret Murray’s sense) by her grandmother, Adriana Porter (1857–1946), an underground Craft teaching that supposedly originated in the West of England, in Somerset. Porter was born in Nova Scotia, married William Healy, a bookkeeper and insurance broker, in 1888, and moved with him first to Rhode Island and then to Melrose, Mass. They had one son, Walter, Gwen’s mother’s first husband.

According to Gwen Thompson, her grandmother’s family “were carriers of a secret tradition of Folk Witchcraft,” although her mother had broken with it upon marrying her second husband. Nevertheless, by then Adriana had initiated her and given her the Craft name of Gwen. When Adriana died, Gwen found some of her papers, which she considered to be a Book of Shadows, and which she copied. But she always “refused to tell her initiates anything about the identity of her living relatives, saying, ‘They don’t want to talk to you!'”

This study of her claims has two authors. One, Robert Mathiesen, never met her. Now retired from the Dept. of Slavic Languages at Brown University, he has “a life-long interest in the history of magical practices and doctrines and alternative religions” Theitic, on the other hand, was Thompson’s student from 1974–78 and is now considered to be the historian of the NECTW tradition.

Mathiesen faced one daunting obstacle — he was not allowed to look at Gwen’s Book, except for a part, the Rede (Old English for “counsel”)  that had been published in the Pagan magazine Green Egg in 1975. Most of the Rede is traditional folk wisdom, such “With the fool no season spend / or be counted as his friend.” Other couplets contain wisdom more appropriate to seamen in the days of sail rather than farmers, which could connect them with a port such as Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

The collection as published starts and finished with other couplets that sound a great deal like Gerald Gardner or Doreen Valiente. As Mathiesen writes, they “use the false archaism Wiccan and strongly echo Gardner’s form of Wicca.”

Mathisen researched Adriana Porter’s family history extensively, and he notes that when she came to the Boston are in the 1880s, she had the leisure and income to have investigated  Spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, and other esoteric currents in that city. Since this book’s publication, he has found hints that she might have known Paul Foster Case, in the 1920s. Case was a ceremonial magician and founder of the mystery school Builders of the Adytum, which still exists.

But the so-called Old Religion? The authors conclude that between 19 and 21 of the 26 couplets in the Rede might well have been written down by Adriana Porter, or else some other 19th-century person. The rest, those that give it a Wiccan flavor, were added almost certainly by Gwen Thompson.

It is another example of what I call “the Gardnerian magnet.” Because books by Gardner and his associates became available from 1957 on, many people not part of that initiatory lineage “borrowed” from it heavily.

Adriana had opportunities to become well acquainted with various occult and esoteric teachings. But there is nothing to prove that she carried forward a deep ancestral tradition of Witchcraft as an alternative religion.

My own larger conclusion is that I still have seen no credible evidence for anyone practicing a self-consciously polytheistic Pagan religion called Wicca or Witchcraft prior to 1951 in the English-speaking world.* What we find, instead, are cases such as these:

  • A Craft leader drops bits of information about their own or an ancestor’s involvement in an esoteric school, ceremonial magical group, etc. and passes that off as an ancestral tradition. Such may well have been the case with Gwen Thompson.
  • A person’s ancestor knew herbalism, root-working, card-reading or other divination, spell-casting, water-witching, conjuring, astrology, etc. — even in a Christian context — and their descendent describes this involvement as an ancestral tradition of Witchcraft in order to legitimize their own position in the new religion of Pagan Witchcraft.

Research projects such as The Rede of the Wiccae are needed, therefore, to settle some of these historical questions — inasmuch as they can be settled — and free scholarship on contemporary Paganism to view it through other lenses.

* Yes, I include Philip Heselton’s work here, as detailed in this book review.

New York Occult Revival (2)

In February I linked to a description of a “magickal revival” in New York City. People say these things are cyclical.

Now Joe “Vampires” Laycock weighs in: “Why Hipsters May Be Perfect Source for Brooklyn Occult Revival,” a sort of Durkheimian look at the same idea.

More than their magical services, magicians offer their clients the chance to interact with a fascinating personality. Exotic objects and spiritual narratives help clients to feel that they are receiving personalized attention from metaphysical forces, directed at them through the magician.

In this sense, it is not surprising that Brooklyn—commonly associated with Hipsters—is producing compelling magicians. The Hipster’s project of cloaking oneself in an air of aloof mystery and repurposing strange objects into emblems of one’s personal brand is excellent preparation for the magician’s craft.

Or does magick bloom in difficult economic time or times of psychic shifts?

‘Cosmos’ Misrepresents Giordano Bruno

Neil Degrasse Tyson’s remake of Cosmos tries to remake Giordano Bruno as a martyr of modern science, but he was nothing of the kind.

He was a lot more of an occultist. Even The Daily Beast gets it.

As Discover magazine’s Corey Powell pointed out, the philosophers of the 16th century weren’t anything like scientists in the modern sense. Bruno, for instance, was a “pandeist,” which is the belief that God had transformed himself into all matter and ceased to exist as a distinct entity in himself. He believed in all sort of magic and spirits, and extrapolated those views far beyond his ideas about the infinity of the universe. In contrast to contemporaries who drew more modest conclusions from their similar ideas, Bruno agitated for an elaborate counter-theology, and was (unlike the poor, humble outcast portrayed in Cosmos) supported by powerful royal benefactors. The church didn’t even have a position on whether the Earth orbited the sun, and didn’t bring it up at Bruno’s trial. While the early-modern religious persecution certainly can’t be denied, Bruno was killed because he flamboyantly denied basic tenets of the Catholic faith, not because religious authorities were out to suppress all “freedom of thought.”

New York’s ‘Occult Revival’: Everything Old Is New Again

From The Revealer (see blogroll under Religion and Journalism): “Chapel Perilous: Notes From The New York Occult Revival.”

There’s been a magical revival happening in New York City for two to three years,” Damon Stang, the “shop witch” for Catland Books in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, told the New York Times last year. “I think it’s a nostalgia that people have for a sense of enchantment with the world.”

There is some material evidence that a new interest in magic and esoteric subjects is growing. Catland itself, an active center for pagan rites and magical ceremonies, opened last February. The Times article, which appeared ten months after opening, is an indication of that interest, although it was albeit a local-color piece called “Friday Night Rites”  in which the shop was erroneously located in  Williamsburg. More substantially, NYU hosted its first annual Occult Humanities Conference in October — a gathering of researchers, practitioners and artists from all over the world who engaged in work with the occult and esoteric. The Observatory, Park’s home base, has been offering well-attended lectures on magical topics since 2009, including a few by Mitch Horowitz. . . . .

In the academic study of religion, “the occult” is neither settled as a term nor a community. At its most basic level, it indicates a kind of hiddenness — a concealed truth. In popular usage, this usually means pagan nature worship, witchcraft, spirit communication, magic and other fringe religious ideas. The scholar Catherine Albanese, in her magisterial A Republic of Mind and Spirit, investigated many American practitioners of these forms as “metaphysicals,” a particular variety of religious actor for whom the power of the mind and the existence of a concealed “energy” within the body and the world, are essential. It’s a useful term, but hardly ever applied outside of the academy. The people I met at the conference preferred the words “occult” and “esoteric” to describe their interests, often using them interchangeably. How can a revival be studied when it is unclear what, exactly, is being revived?

Worth reading, among other things, for the reminder about Robert Anton Wilson’s idea of the “chapel perilous.” I could tell stories . . .  and I am certain that you could too.