Paganism, Magic, and Witchcraft: It’s Academic

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  June 23, 2010 — 1 Comment

As an academic discipline, Pagan Studies is certainly a “new kid on the block,” just as Paganism as a term for a living religious tradition is still relatively new in the current era of world history. (I have had to clarify for some people I’ve met in recent history that identifying as Pagan doesn’t mean “no religion at all” on several occasions…!) Some of the writers who have produced seminal works within Pagan Studies come from a journalistic background, like Chas Clifton and Margot Adler. The focus of a great deal of Pagan studies up until this point has tended to be anthropological, with exemplary writers like Sabina Magliocco coming from this discipline and forging paths in this new area. Many of these have done so while being practitioners themselves. But, the field of Pagan Studies is (like many such “____ Studies” subjects) an interdisciplinary one, taking in elements from history (the field of Ronald Hutton, amongst others), literary studies across many fields, sociology, psychology, and religion, as well as a variety of other possibilities, in addition to anthropology. This interdisciplinarity can only be an advantage in terms of offering many people across a broad range of subjects the opportunity to lend their own special skills and knowledge to questions within the field.

And yet, the anthropological methodology of “participant-observer” is not shared with most of these other fields, making it difficult in some cases to engage with these subjects in an academic setting at all, much less to do so when one is a practitioner of the religion oneself. Religious studies has based its own methodology on a phenomenological approach, rather than a theological approach, so that an individual student or scholar can examine a particular religious idea, practice, text, or development while not necessarily endorsing that idea from a personal or sectarian viewpoint. While a robust Pagan theology would indeed be useful, both within and across various modern traditions and movements (and moves in this direction have been made with John Michael Greer’s A World Full of Gods and T. Thorn Coyle’s Kissing the Limitless), this ability to have Paganism studied as a religion and a religious phenomenon—both by non-Pagans and Pagans alike—within an academic setting is a positive thing, but also one that does not have a very lengthy historical precedent.

Two scholars who have written on the difficulties of researching Paganism and the perceived difficulty of “going native” within academia include Graham Harvey in his piece “Pagan Studies or the Study of Paganisms? A Case Study in the Study of Religions” in Researching Paganisms, and Amy Hale’s “White Men Can’t Dance: Evaluating Race, Class and Rationality in Ethnographies of the Esoteric” in Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon. The fact is, some of us who are practicing Pagans do exist in academic fields, and happen to also study things that would potentially be of interest or use to modern practicing Pagans. So, what about us?

The simple fact of the matter is that in many disciplines, this is not in any way an advantage, and is often something that must be concealed for fear of one’s work being labeled as “agenda-driven scholarship.” (Let’s ignore for a moment all the findings of post-modern theory, and the fact that there is no such thing as completely disinterested, objective, or scientific scholarship when it comes to anything in the humanities and social sciences…!) One must tread carefully; and yet, the question of authenticity remains. Is crypto-Paganism in the humanities—particularly in the direct study of Paganism, the occult, magic, and other such subjects—a good thing, or would “coming out of the broom closet” be as useful and liberating as it is for those who are diverse in their sexual orientations have found it to be in their own workplaces?

While that is an issue that should be up to the individuals involved, what is more worrisome is how often aspects of Paganism, witchcraft, occultism, and magic are misunderstood amongst the academic “experts” in these fields. I was a guest professor at a major Midwestern U.S. university from January to April of this year, and I had the opportunity to speak about both historical and modern Pagan practices in several of the courses I was teaching; I also teach religious studies courses that touch on Paganism on an adjunct basis. In all of these, I generally do not reveal my own religious affiliations to my students (or at least not until the end of class when everything is finished and there is no possibility of bias in grading or in students’ completion of assignments). While at this Midwestern university during those months, I spoke with other people who teach or research these subjects (all of whom were non-practitioners) in diverse fields, at conferences, dinners, and special seminars. Some of the things I heard about modern Paganism from these “experts” utterly astounded me with the ignorance, negativity, and arrogance displayed. The names of the university and the events and individuals involved have been withheld here to protect the ignorant.

In early March, I had dinner the night before a seminar on witchcraft with a professor from another university, who had a large section on modern Paganism in several of his courses, and admitted to a great interest in and expertise with the subject. (After praising the work of Tanya Luhrmann as a useful and representative treatment of modern witchcraft, I became quite skeptical…) At one point, Asatru was mentioned, and another person at the dinner asked what that was. This professor from the other university said “Those are the Norse Pagans who are white supremacists.” (!?!) I quickly added “It’s a very small minority amongst the Germanic Pagan population which actively thinks that,” to which he replied, “From what I’ve studied, it seems to be an essential element in Asatru.” I pointed him to the work of Diana Paxson and suggested that he take a close look at her, as—no matter what some may opine about her practices—she is representative of the larger trend in Asatru to not have racial considerations at the forefront of her theology, or even her wider concerns, spiritually or otherwise. Gods hope he followed up on that suggestion!

There was a small weekend conference on religion and magic in the ancient world, with various classicists as presenters, and it amazed me how naïve most of the people speaking as experts in ancient magic were about how magic “actually” works. One gave a paper outlining a new methodology for outlining what might be magical material in the archaeological record, without addressing anything specific from the texts involved, like the fact that crossroads might be a good place to excavate for remnants of magical activity, if in no other way than to see if the soil samples were frequently disturbed during the period of late antiquity. I made this suggestion afterwards, and the presenter seemed rather dumbfounded that he had not thought of it. Another gave a paper on a cognitive studies approach to magic, because it is impossible (from her viewpoint, and no doubt that of many in the room) that someone could think of a by-definition “inanimate object” as having power, much less volition or even agency. In polytheistic and animistic cultures, it would be much stranger to assume an object would even be able to exist as “inanimate,” but of course the context of theology in the original cultures was not in any way relevant to the inquiry. (Much less trying to argue that certain ritual tools of many modern pagans not only have had a life of their own quite literally, but in fact might choose the owner as equally as the owner might choose them!) The results of this “cognitive theory in magic” research might reveal much about how a modern person understands from a cognitive theoretical perspective how this would work, but I seriously doubt it would have any relevance at all to magic practitioners in late antiquity.

Even worse, to support her research, she cited a recent study of how U.S. military servicemembers in Iraq and Afghanistan who work with robotic drones have often risked life and limb to save injured robots, have held robot funerals and medal ceremonies, and have become very emotionally attached to the robots they work with, even giving them names. The gathered audience of academics laughed at this. I was not amused at all. The arrogance to laugh at people under an immense amount of stress, doing some of the most difficult and dangerous work in the military, was bad enough; but the idea that as “rational” academics, all those in the room were somehow superior to these “uneducated” and even “primitive” and “superstitious” individuals was truly sickening.

However, these various incidents paled in comparison to a seminar on African witchcraft that I attended, hosted by the departments of African Studies and anthropology. After an outside scholar presented a good paper on witchcraft accusations in parts of modern Africa, including the idea that nowadays all witches have airplanes (apparently, that’s how they fly…?!?), a faculty member present asked why there aren’t anthropological studies of modern witches in the U.S., and then went on to tell us all how witches killed her cat when she lived in L.A. The outside presenter somewhat dodged that issue, but then said “Well, there is this modern thing called ‘Wicca,’ but, of course, it’s false and artificial.” Oh, really? Deciding that it was useless to engage that presenter in conversation, I instead went to the faculty member who had asked the question.

I began to suggest some of the studies I’ve mentioned above, and she cut me off and said “It’s not as if I’d actually read any of that; I just wondered why no one is doing this work.” (They are!) As I was trying to talk a bit more sensibly about some of the issues she raised, and I mentioned that there are a larger number of Pagans in the U.S. than some might think, she rolled her eyes and said “I can’t think that’s in any way a good thing.” As I began to respond to that comment as rationally as possible, she again cut me off and said angrily, “THEY KILLED MY CAT!” Due to some knowledge and research on that issue (including a great deal written on this very blog about animal sacrifice!), I then tried to explain that no modern Pagan group, including those that advocate animal sacrifice, would kill a cat, nor any non-food animal, nor would they dispose of it by strewing it out across a neighborhood, as was the case with her own dead cat’s story. Apparently, some “occult expert” in the police department said that “they probably killed it because they wanted its blood for their rituals.” I again tried to explain the likelihood of that was extremely remote, but by this time, she had completely dismissed me.

Modern Pagans, witches, occultists, and magic practitioners are a potential audience for a great deal of academic work on these topics—indeed, I imagine more modern Pagans and occultists own titles from Penn State University Press’ Magic in History series than do actual academics! And, why wouldn’t modern Pagans, particularly those of a reconstructionist bent, not want to go to university to study Classical Greek and Roman cultures and languages, Egyptology, Scandinavian Studies, Celtic Studies, and any number of other historical and literary subjects which might have direct relevance to our own spiritual practices? Generations of Christians and Jews have done the same, whether under the aegis of religious studies, theology, archaeology, or any number of other disciplines. And yet, many academics in these fields have a vested interest in keeping their “dead languages and dead religions” as dead as possible. Indeed, the term “academic” does not just mean learned discourses on a variety of subjects, but instead can mean “neither practical nor useful.” Gods forbid someone translate a ritual text or spell, lest someone attempt to use it!

The academic engagement with Paganism, as well as Pagan involvement in academia, could be very useful indeed. But, until academia takes modern Pagans as subjects of useful study on a wider basis, as well as considers practicing Pagans as equally viable to study such subjects (whether modern Paganism or ancient and medieval literature, culture, history, and magic), then full religious equality within the Ivory Tower will not be a reality.

In my opinion, it is no coincidence that questions of hermeneutics are at the forefront of academic discussions of methodology in many fields; but it is the god Hermes who is at the root of the very practice of interpretive sciences, if you like, both etymologically and functionally. The question of the biases of an academic in studying their field is a question of hermeneutics, and one which has been inserted into the discourse on feminist theory, LGBTQ studies and histories, race, postcolonialism, and a variety of other discourses within particular humanities and social science subjects. And, I think it is time that many of us brought Hermes with us in our hermeneutics, as Pagans in academia, and as Pagans studying Paganism. Gods willing, it will happen more and more as the public face of Paganisms in the U.S. and worldwide increases.

Many thanks and blessings to Jason for his continued hard work on this blog and for the invitation to write here today; to all of you who took the time to read this entry; and to all of the Pagans working, both behind-the-scenes and openly, in academia!

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus is a founder of the Ekklesía Antínoou (a queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist group dedicated to Antinous, the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and related divine figures) a member of Neos Alexandria, and a Celtic Reconstructionist pagan. He has published a collection of poetry called The Phillupic Hymns (Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008), as well as a number of essays and poems in the various Bibliotheca Alexandrina devotional volumes to Artemis, Hekate, and Isis and Serapis, with several more due out in the near future, as well as two poems in the Scarlet Imprint anthology Datura. He can also be found blogging for International Pagan Values Month 2010 on the Ekklesía Antínoou LiveJournal group. Lupus’ day-job (as a professional academic and adjunct instructor) and general daily life is nowhere near as interesting as any of the above, and is therefore best glossed over!

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Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Michelle McNeill

    You talk too much. That’s a hint to be more succinct in getting to the point.

    The problem with studying the surviving traditional religions as an outsider is that it is a pointless exercise in perpetuating ignorance. My own experiences with outsiders have shown me that they are incapable of understanding anything which I or anyone else can tell them because it is so alien to anything they know or understand they just can’t make the leap in understanding.

    It is also an exercise in futility. It’s like trying to describe the flavor of a food to someone who has never tasted it. If you can’t even find a similar food to compare it to, you can only say it tastes good, bad, or “different”. They will just have to eat it to know what it tastes like.

    Understanding the old ways requires at the very least, an interactive relationship with the paranormal. Most modern people have completely lost that.

    It also requires being able to live the lifestyle for a period of time. Even in modern humans there is a difference in how people who were born and raised in a large city, by previous generations of the same background, think and do things when compared to someone who has been raised in a strictly rural background by previous generations of the same background.

    People keep asking me what my religion is. The only thing I can tell them is that my people doesn’t have a Baskin and Robbins approach to spiritual practices. We don’t have a favorite flavor, we don’t have competing glee clubs, we only have our individual relationships to God.

    Our ceremonies aren’t about religion. Our family relationships do not stop at the grave. Our ancestors still interact with us through our ceremonies to help guide us in our daily lives. And we are related to God, so God is there too. And everything else is related to God, so we ask for the input of our non human relatives. Everything is related, we all have to work together to share this world and live well.

    What people actually hear is: My people are heathens with no religion who think everything has a spirit, and they pray to dead people and animals.

    Ooooh well!