At his blog, now called On New and Alternative Religions, Ethan Doyle While interviews Helen Berger, one of the leading American scholars of contemporary Paganism.
Since completing her PhD research on the early modern witch trials in the 1980s, Berger has devoted her career to the sociological analysis of modern-day communities whose practitioners call themselves witches. Her first book, A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States (University of South Carolina Press, 1999), was a landmark in the subject and was followed up with important studies such as Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States (with Evan A. Leach and Leigh Shaffer, University of South Carolina Press, 2003), Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self (with Doug Ezzy, Rutgers University Press, 2007), and most recently Solitary Pagans: Contemporary Witches, Wiccans and Others Who Practice Alone (University of South Carolina Press, 2019). Currently a Professor Emeritus at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and an Affiliated Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, Berger is continuing to work on the modern Pagan milieu, exploring its relationships with far-right politics. She tells us about her career and her thoughts on the future of the academic study of modern Paganism.
She explains how her interest in today’s Witches and Pagans grew from earlier research on the Salem Witch Trials and similar events. In the mid-1980s, she gave a series of lectures at the Boston Public Library — and realized who was in the audience.
The audience for each of the lectures varied with some people who attended every week and others who came only for a particular lecture. One elderly woman with white hair always sat in the front row, listened intently, and asked interesting questions. I looked forward to seeing her there every week. At the final lecture, when I said what was then a surprising fact; Witches looked like everyone else. You could be living next door to, or working with, a Witch and not know it. She stopped me mid-lecture and asked, “are you saying there could be Witches in the room.” As the average age of the participants had dropped significantly for this lecture, I offered that I thought there probably were Witches in the room. She stood up, turned around with her hands on her hips, and asked, “are there any Witches here?” I think it is because she looked like the quintessential grandmother that a number of people raised their hands.
Read the whole thing. Helen Berger has also published a number of articles in The Pomegranate as well as being one our most valuable peer-reviewers in the sociology of Paganism. Her 2015 article “An Outsider Inside: Becoming a Scholar of Contemporary Paganism” reflected on some of the issues involved.