The war in Ukraine is a fast-changing affair, but one event from two days ago has already spawn a meme that has folklore scholars (like my friend Sabina Magliocco) shouting, “Folklore rules.
It started with a video (there are two versions) of a confrontation between a Ukranian woman and a Russian soldier in or near the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson.
She starts right out with “What the fuck are you doing here?”
The soldier tries to downplay it, saying that he is part of an “exercise.” She won’t have it. And she death-curses him, telling him, “You’re occupants, you’re fascists! What the fuck are you doing on our land with all those guns? Take these seeds and put them in your pockets, so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here.” (Sunflowers are a national symbol in Ukraine and quite popular in decorative arts.)
Shortly after, there were other versions, such as this:
This conflict has no common name yet, but some are already calling it The Sunflower War.
Only hours later, Sabina Magliocco posted on Facebook a new meme, for magical work against President Putin. On it, the words of the curse:There you are, war and magic at the speed of social media. But there might be more to say about putting your magical intentions out on the internet. I will have more to say about that in a short time.
It is interesting to note how even those who accept the idea of berserksgangr as performance will often say something along the lines of “Ah yes, but when does performing madness spill over into becoming mad?” When I argue that berserksgangr was a performance with social and cultural meaning that is lost to us, it immediately becomes performing madness in people’s minds, even though that is not what I have proposed. The battle-mad berserker of popular culture is one of several realities that berserkir have. It just isn’t a medieval or Viking Age reality. However, the popular view of berserkir as mad warriors is so strongly ingrained in the language we use to describe the historical realities too that it is hugely difficult to imagine anything different.
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.
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.
Who Was Mircea Eliade?
Eliade lived from 1907–1986. Through the 1940s and 1950s he described himself as a “wandering scholar,” a time when he and his first wife were 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.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.
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.)
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.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.
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.
In 1938, after economic downtowns and political turmoil, the king dissolved all political parties and iinstituted 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.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.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 … Continue reading
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?
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 religiosus, 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.”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.”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.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.
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.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 transcendental 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.
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.”
That is Tiger as in Tiger tank, not the big cat. This is a World War II movie. If you don’t like war movies, stop. If you are the kind who reacts with “T-34s in the mud. Cool!” then keep reading.
After an engagement with the Germans in which a Red Army armored unit is mostly destroyed, a Russian driver is found in his tank, badly burned but still alive. He makes a miraculous recovery but loses his memory—he remembers his military skills but forgets his name, personal history, and so forth.
He also talk to tanks. In one scene, he walks along a line of railroad flatcars carrying damaged Red Army tanks to the rear, and each one tells him, somehow, how it was knocked out.
A seemingly invincible German Tiger tank is wreaking havoc with Russian units, and the mysterious driver is given command of an upgraded T-34 and told to locate and destroy “the White Tiger.” Naydënov, the driver, believes that the Tank God warns him when he is in danger, and he also comes to think that the White Tiger is itself animated, not needing a human crew. Although he eventually engages and damages the White Tiger, it escapes.
After the German surrender, a Russian officer finds Naydënov still hunting the White Tiger. He tells the tanker that the war over now. To quote Wikipedia,
But Naydënov disagrees, saying that the war will not truly end until the White Tiger is destroyed. Naydënov believes the White Tiger has gone into hiding and has been recovering from its wounds since their last battle. He claims it will return in several decades unless it is completely destroyed. Naydënov then vanishes along with his tank, seemingly into thin air.
At this point the movie becomes strange. In our normal linear history, Adolf Hitler is dead by then, but the final scene is a monologue between Hitler and some shadowy figure, sitting in an elegant office, in which the German leader talks about the “eternal struggle,” how all of Europe inwardly wanted Nazi German to attack the USSR, and how war is the normal human state.
It’s like additional dialog by Julius Evola. “The blood of the heroes is closer to God than the ink of the philosophers and the prayers of the faithful” — that kind of thing.
Considering that this is a Russian movie, it is the kind of twist that makes me wonder sometimes that although Germany lost the physical-plane war against the USSR, if it did not win on some other plane of existence. Eternal struggle . . .
Our intention is not to argue that Buddhists are angry, violent people—but rather that Buddhists are people, and thus share the same human spectrum of emotions, which includes the penchant for violence.
Setting immigrant Buddhism (Japanese, Vietnamese, etc.) aside, most Americans’ view of the Buddhism comes from intellectuals like D.T. Suzuki or various elite teachers, roshis, etc.
We Americans never saw Buddhism(s) in its original cultural contexts.
As I recall, some medieval Japanese monasteries used to send out armed monks to fight in various political struggles, just to name one instance.