A New Study of Solitary Pagans

Solitary Pagans: Contemporary Witches, Wiccans, and Others Who Practice Alone is a new study from Helen A. Berger, a sociologist of religion who has been studying contemporary Paganism for decades. Her body of work is large enough now that future scholars will be returning to it again and again for its depth.

It is published by the University of South Carolina Press, which says,

Solitary Pagans is the first book to explore the growing phenomenon of contemporary Pagans who practice alone. Although the majority of Pagans in the United States have abandoned the tradition of practicing in groups, little is known about these individuals or their way of practice. Helen A. Berger fills that gap by building on a massive survey of contemporary practitioners. By examining the data, Berger describes solitary practitioners demographically and explores their spiritual practices, level of social engagement, and political activities. Contrasting the solitary Pagans with those who practice in groups and more generally with other non-Pagan Americans, she also compares contemporary U.S. Pagans with those in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada.

Berger brings to light the new face of contemporary paganism by analyzing those who learn about the religion from books or the Internet and conduct rituals alone in their gardens, the woods, or their homes. Some observers believe this social isolation and political withdrawal has resulted in an increase in narcissism and a decline in morality, while others argue to the contrary that it has produced a new form of social integration and political activity. Berger posits the implications of her findings to reveal a better understanding of other metaphysical religions and those who shun traditional religious organizations.

Prof. Berger has authored or co-authored a number of books on contemporary Paganism, including A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States (1999),  Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States (2003), Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for Self (2007), Witchcraft and Magic: Contemporary North America (2005).

In addition, she has mentored a number of younger social scientists studying contemporary Paganism (and other things) as well as having served on the steering committee for Contemporary Pagan Studies within the American Academy of Religion.

I will be looking to find this book at the AAR-SBL book show in November and will probably come home with a copy.

Pagan Children & the Anglican Death Spiral

Photo: The Very Reverend Jane Hedges rides the 55-foot high “helter-skelter” inside Norwich Cathedral in England.1)While her official biography says she was ordained a “deaconess” in 1980, she was elevated to “priest” in 1994. You can’t say “priestess” in the Anglican church — evidently the word makes them think of filmy skirts, tambourines, and sex. If you want a sort of objective correlative for the church’s health today, there it is, a downward spiral. (BBC)

Be patient, I am coming at this the long away around.

I was raised in the American Episcopal Church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, at the time. When I walked into an Anglican church in Canada or in Jamaica (where we lived for a couple of years) and picked up a prayer book, it obvious we were all in the same family, so to speak. There was an Anglican joke that referenced the church’s strength in all the former British colonies in Africa: “The Africans pray, the Americans pay, and the British make the rules.”

None of this is true anymore. In the United States, several different organizations compete for the allegiance of local Episcopal church parishes: the breakaway Anglican Church in North America,  the Anglican Church in America, the Church of Nigeria, and The Episcopal Church, the original body. And there are more. It’s very complicated and not germane at this point, except to say that the total membership of The (original) Episcopal Church is cratering.

In England, where the church was “established,” i.e., intertwined with the government as the official church of the nation, its piight is even worse, As columnist Rod Dreher (himself an Orthodox Christian) sneerlingly wrote, “Would the last Anglican left please remember to bring out the vestments? The Victoria & Albert Museum would no doubt like to preserve some evidence that there once was a thing called the Church of England.”

You can imagine his reaction to this article, in which clergy at a medieval cathedral defend their decision to (temporarily, they say) remove all the furnishings and replace them with amusement park rides and miniature golf:

The Reverend Canon Andy Bryant, from Norwich Cathedral, said he could see why people would be surprised to see the helter-skelter.

But in addition to showcasing the roof, he said it was “part of the cathedral’s mission to share the story of the Bible” and was a “creative and innovative way to do that”.

I don’t remember miniature golf (crazy golf) in the Bible, but maybe they are using a different translation.

I have two takeaways from this story.

For one, it is obvious that a lot of the Anglicans have “lost their contacts,” as the ceremonial magicians say.2)That is not the same as dropping a contact lens into the lavatory sink drain. In other words, their connection to their deity is not there anymore, there is no “juice,” and they are just trying to fill the void by social movements and entertainment.

For the second, at least within the liturgical churches there is a lot of learning for children. Not the hellfire part, but the importance of symbolic art, the transformative power of music (especially when you are doing the long chants yourself), some knowledge of sacred theater, exposure to ritual ways of dealing with birth, sickness, death, and everything else, and even a little about meditation and sacred reading.

I walked out the door myself at age 16. I was not mad at any one. No priest molested me or any of the altar boys that I knew about. I was not stewing about “adult hypocrisy” more than the average teenager might. I had just come to the conclusion that the church’s picture of the cosmos was not mine and that I could no longer accept its theology. So I spent the next five years as a “seeker” before someone showed Herself to me.

Now if I had a dollar for every Pagan who has said in my hearing “We won’t ‘push our religion’ on our children,” I could pay my fare to the American Academy of Religion meeting in San Diego next fall.

What I would like to say is, “If you don’t put something in that space, what are they going to fill it with?”  Digital nothings? People need forms for doing things. We need to be aware of other dimensions. I am no longer a Christian, but I do in retrospect thank the church for giving me a “vocabulary” of ritual and so forth — not the only ways of doing ritual, but at least some ways.

Of course, being Christian, all their focus was on the vertical axis — God up there, us down here. There was no significant “horizontal” engagement with the other-than-human world, aside from an occasional Blessing of the (domestic) Animals. Everything was put here for us to use, as described in Genesis. (The “stewardship” teaching is just watered-down domination.)

It delights me to see adult Pagans involving children in ritual and other “horizontal” engagements, giving them ways to think about relationships with other beings and ways to mark life’s changes. Memories made with the body and witch actions last longer than words and doctrines.

I am taking this quote from John Beckett’s blog out of context, but it fits. The topic is “sacrifice.”

Letting perfectly good food sit on an ancestor shrine was so foreign to my kids when our family began ancestor offerings. It smacked against their overculture, their appetites, their unawareness that physical objects are envelopes of intent.

If the parents are Wiccan, for example, will the kids be Wiccan? Who knows? But at least they will have a vocabulary for the sacred dimensions of life.

Miniature golf they can learn on their own.

Notes   [ + ]

1. While her official biography says she was ordained a “deaconess” in 1980, she was elevated to “priest” in 1994. You can’t say “priestess” in the Anglican church — evidently the word makes them think of filmy skirts, tambourines, and sex.
2. That is not the same as dropping a contact lens into the lavatory sink drain.

‘The Goddess Doesn’t Want Any More Prophets’ and Other Observations by ‘Robert’


First of all, “Robert” is Frederic Lamond, one of Gerald Gardner’s early coveners—his mundane name is not exactly oathbound material these days, now that he has written books and has his own Wikipedia page.

But this screenshot is from the documentary Robert: Portrait of a Witch, made by Malcolmn Brenner in 1991 and now transferred from VHS to digital video and put on YouTube by Valdosta State University as part of their New Age Movements, Occultism, and Spiritualism Research Library.

Lamond joined the Craft when he was in his mid-twenties. He later went on to a career in finance — “in the City” as the British would say,  the equivalent to “on Wall Street” for an American.

He was also a key resource for the American scholar of Wiccan history Aidan Kelly in writing Inventing Witchcraft: A Case Study in the Creation of a New Religion.

Sit back: there is lots here on Gardnerian Wicca in the 1950s, Gardner’s own lack of charisma by religious-leader standards and his puckish sense of humor, why the North American Gardnerians went wrong in trying to enshrine one Book of Shadows, and Lamond’s own thoughts on how patriarchal monotheism came to dominate the world.

“Out of the Broom Closet” — American Wicca in the late 1980s

Valdosta State University in Georgia has digitized and posted two videos by Wiccan journalists Malcolm Brenner and Lezlie Kinyon. (That is Brenner’s voice-over narration.)

This one, Out of the Broom Closet, was released in 1991 from video shot in the preceding years.

This documentary begins with a protest of Z. Budapest speaking about witchcraft at the St. Theresa Public Library in San Jose, California on July 12, 1986. What follows are formal and informal interviews of Pagan leaders explaining what Wicca is, how the general public has a misconception of what witchcraft is, and why it is important for practitioners to come “Out of the Broom Closet” to educate the public.

It and much more are cataloged in VSU’s  New Age Movements, Occultism and Spiritualism Research Library (NAMOSRL), created by librarian Guy Frost.

A Festschrift for Ronald Hutton

Magic and Witchery: Celebrating the Twentieth Anniversary of ‘The Triumph of the Moon’ will be published in September by Palgrave Macmillan.

I love rolling the word Festschrift around, and if you are not used to it, this is what it means: “In academia, a Festschrift  (plural Festschriften) is a book honoring a respected person, especially an academic and presented during their lifetime. It generally takes the form of an edited volume, containing contributions from the honoree’s colleagues, former pupils, and friends” (Wikipedia).

From the publisher:

This book marks twenty years since the publication of Professor Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon, a major contribution to the historical study of Wicca. Building on and celebrating Hutton’s pioneering work, the chapters in this volume explore a range of modern magical, occult, and Pagan groups active in Western nations. Each contributor is a specialist in the study of modern Paganism and occultism, although differ in their embrace of historical, anthropological, and psychological perspectives. Chapters examine not only the history of Wicca, the largest and best-known form of modern Paganism, but also modern Pagan environmentalist and anti-nuclear activism, the Pagan interpretation of fairy folklore, and the contemporary ‘Traditional Witchcraft’ phenomenon.

Here are the contents:

1. Twenty Years On: An Introduction — Ethan Doyle White and Shai Feraro, editors

2. The Goddess and the Great Rite: Hindu Tantra and the Complex Origins of Modern Wicca — Hugh B. Urban

3. Playing the Pipes of PAN: Pagans Against Nukes and the Linking of Wiccan-Derived Paganism with Ecofeminism in Britain, 1980–1990 — Shai Feraro

4. Other Sides of the Moon: Assembling Histories of Witchcraft —Helen Cornish

5. The Nearest Kin of the Moon: Irish Pagan Witchcraft, Magic(k), and the Celtic Twilight — Jenny Butler

6. The Taming of the Fae: Literary and Folkloric Fairies in Modern Paganisms — Sabina Magliocco

7. “Wild Nature” and the Lure of the Past: The Legacy of Romanticism among Young Pagan Environmentalists — Sarah M. Pike

8. The Blind Moondial Makers: Creativity and Renewal in Wicca — Léon A. van Gulik

9. “The Eyes of Goats and of Women”: Femininity and the Post-Thelemic Witchcraft of Jack Parsons and Kenneth Grant — Manon Hedenborg White

10. Navigating the Crooked Path: Andrew D. Chumbley and the Sabbatic Craft — Ethan Doyle White

11. Witches Still Fly: Or Do They? Traditional Witches, Wiccans, and Flying  — Chas S. Clifton

12. Afterword — Ronald Hutton

Texas Witchcraft Murder Archive Finds a Home

I have diversity right here in the trunk of my rental car, officer.

The first problem on any university campus finding a parking spot. I pulled in behind the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum, which is part of West Texas A &M University, and all the faculty spaces were full.

There was an empty place for the president’s office. Hmmm.

Ah, there! “Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer.” I reckon that by being on their campus, I am bringing types of diversity that this edu-crat never thought of.1)Put me in charge, and I would fire his/her ass and give all that bloated salary money as pay raises to adjunct professors in the English Department. I call the museum’s research center director, a soft-spoken archivist named Warren Stricker, and tell him that M. and I have arrived. He promises to be right down.

A campus cop drives up, but he is talking to someone else. I am unloading cartons out of the trunk, like I have a perfect right to do so. A timid squirrel sneaks up on a spilled cup of Sonic french fries. The campus cop looks at M. and me, but stays in his vehicle.

Three months ago, I completed an article for the Journal of Religion and Violence on what happened when one of the higher-up figures in the Church of Wicca was tried for murder back in 1980.

The defendant, Loy Stone, and his wife, Louise, were both alumni of West Texas State University in Canyon, Texas — now known as West Texas A & M. 2)The university still plays up the fact that that a young Georgia O’Keefe taught there from 1916–1918. I had approached Texas State University about taking my archive of documents about the case, but Texas is so big that the university archivists (except maybe at UT in Austin) think regionally. TSU’s response was, “We’re all about south Texas. You should talk to the Panhandle Museum.”

And so I did. Warren Stricker was immediately interested.

Dimmitt, Hereford, Plainview — these locales are all right in their front yard, so to speak.

I came away with a Temporary Custody Agreement, but Stricker assured me that his committee had already talked over the donation and wanted it all — the psychic impressions, the private investigator’s reports, the correspondence, the legal depositions, the evidence tags, all of it. Hurray! I am not in the archive business, but I could not bear to just toss all of that in the trash, not after the Stones’ two daughters had saved it all for forty-plus years.

And I like the idea of seeding America’s university libraries with witchcraft materials.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Put me in charge, and I would fire his/her ass and give all that bloated salary money as pay raises to adjunct professors in the English Department.
2. The university still plays up the fact that that a young Georgia O’Keefe taught there from 1916–1918.

Paganism(s) Grow in Costa Rica

Carrying on Ronald Hutton’s observation from some years back that Wicca (whatever exactly Wicca is) has become a world religion, here is an article on Costa Rican Wiccans, Druids, Asatruar, and other Pagans. So they are are “world religions” now.

Costa Rica’s indigenous communities have long practiced animism, but it was only in 2010 that the first formally organized pagan group, Kindred Irminsul, was formed. At least six more such pagan groups formed in the following three years. Since 2012, the multiple pagan groups have banded together to form broader partnerships. There’s the Asociación Ásatrú Yggdrasil de Costa Rica, a group self-described as “dedicated to ancient Nordic and Scandinavian religious practices.” Its membership has grown by 60 percent since 2013, says 31-year-old Esteban Sevilla, the group’s president. There’s also the Pagan Alliance of Costa Rica, which consists of Asatruar, Roman Reconstructionists, Wiccans and Druids. .  . .

 

Petitioning the government for a formal religious status is not cheap. There’s the cost of hiring lawyers to read over the paperwork, and the fees of submitting applications. Sevilla notes it could cost his group $1,000. “We’re working on it,” he says, “but it’s expensive.” The review process is long and bureaucratic. Sevilla and his colleagues need to prepare a statement detailing their activity, get a minimum of 50 member signatures — but the more signatories, the greater the likelihood of approval — and then draft and present the religious organization’s statutes. The government can then take its time vetting the request.

Read the whole thing.

“Solitary Pagans,” a New Academic Study

Back in the mid-1990s, Nancy Mostad, then the acquisitions editor at Llewellyn, told me that they estimated that 70 percent of purchasers of books on Paganism were solitaries.Hence the immense success — by their standards — of Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.

Meanwhile, sociologist of religion Helen Berger has been studying American Pagans for decades herself. Her earlier works are A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States and (as co-author) Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States and Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self.

Her new book, Solitary Pagans: Contemporary Witches, Wiccans, and Others Who Practice Alone is available for pre-order. It will be released at Lammas. Since I probably will not read it until next fall, here is what the publisher (U. of South Carolina Press) is saying:

Solitary Pagans is the first book to explore the growing phenomenon of contemporary Pagans who practice alone. Although the majority of Pagans in the United States have abandoned the tradition of practicing in groups, little is known about these individuals or their way of practice. Helen A. Berger fills that gap by building on a massive survey of contemporary practitioners. By examining the data, Berger describes solitary practitioners demographically and explores their spiritual practices, level of social engagement, and political activities. Contrasting the solitary Pagans with those who practice in groups and more generally with other non-Pagan Americans, she also compares contemporary U.S. Pagans with those in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada.

Berger brings to light the new face of contemporary paganism by analyzing those who learn about the religion from books or the Internet and conduct rituals alone in their gardens, the woods, or their homes. Some observers believe this social isolation and political withdrawal has resulted in an increase in narcissism and a decline in morality, while others argue to the contrary that it has produced a new form of social integration and political activity. Berger posits the implications of her findings to reveal a better understanding of other metaphysical religions and those who shun traditional religious organizations.

“A Texas Witch on Trial” Now Published

Former home of Loy and Louise Stone near Hereford, Texas

A lonely farmstead in the cotton fields of the Texas Panhandle became the site of Halloween harassment and possible murder.

In August 2016, I mused about having a Contemporary Pagan Studies on “Paganism and Violence” at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, inspired by a recent gift of multiple cartons of archival material related to the murder trial of a prominent Wiccan figure in 1980.

The universe was listening, but gave my thought a different spin. As I wrote last fall in a post called “Feeding My Little Archives to Bigger Ones,” instead of a conference panel session, I was asked by Massimo Introvigne, a leading scholar of new religious movements (NRMs) to contribute to a special issue of the Journal of Religion and Violence with the theme of NRMs and violence.

Finally, there was the venue for an article that I had messed around with since the mid-2000s.

“A Texas Witch on Trail has now been published in the Journal of Religion and Violence and is available to subscribers — or to people who know how to make an interlibrary loan request.

I have also uploaded the paper to Academia.edu for those who use that site — the journal permits uploading a ms. in Word format, but not the final PDF.

Yes, there is one obvious question that I will not answer in print. And now to deal with those archives.

Season of the Witch(crap), Part 3

As a rule, media witches are always young and female (Mercator).

Season of the Witch(crap), Part 1

Season of the Witch(crap), Part 2

“Witchcrap”: superficial journalistic treatments of Wicca, Witchcraft, and related Pagan paths.

• In The Atlantic,Young black women are leaving Christianity and embracing African witchcraft in digital covens.” Except the article discusses a convention and gets to the digital stuff later. I think the “penchant for digital religion” extends across racial boundaries

• Meanwhile, “Though it is the subtext of savagery that animates narratives around witches, white women who take up the mantle of witch magic rarely understand themselves to be engaging in Indian or savage play,” proclaims the online magazine New Inquiry.

• The Australian Catholic magazine Mercator keeping an eye on Wicca too, but the article is by Massimo Introvigne, who is a well-known scholar of new religious movements and also a Roman Catholic. “The Rise and Rise of Wicca.”

Spike groans, “Spare Me This Pagan Revival.” “Pagans are generally perverts, and not even sexy ones.”

• And from India, Swarajya magazine offers “The Religion They Want to Build,” which notes the Indo-Europeaness of much revived Western Paganism:

As is expected from the linguistic kinship among Indo-European languages, European Pagan cultures show striking similarities with various Indic indigenous traditions. For instance, among Lithuanian Neo Pagans, the notion of Damumas as a foundation of the world order is a central idea. According to Lithuanian ethnologist and Romuva ideologue Jonas Trinkunas, the word Damumas is linked etymologically to the Sanskrit dharma and the Pali Dhamma. J P Mallory, a prominent Indo-European scholar cites another linguistic parallel in a Lithuanian proverb — ‘Dievas dave dantis; Dievas duous duonoss’. The proverb translates as ‘God gave us teeth, God will give bread’. The Sanskrit equivalent of the proverb is Devas adadat datas, Devas dat dhanas.

Not so crappy. And another indication that some Hindus are realizing that they have more in common with us than with the Middle Eastern monotheisms.