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Author and lecturer Raven Grimassi, along with partner Stephanie Taylor-Grimassi, have been favorites as speakers at a number of Pagan and spiritually-inclined events for over 20 years. Recently, the two have been teaching and developing their own unique system of “Old World Witchcraft,” which has grown from their long experience. This new system will be explored in a new publication from Weiser Books, “Grimoire of the Thorn-Blooded Witch: Mastering the Five Arts of Old World Witchery,” that will be released this Summer.

Grimassi Book“Learn to Stand with Feet Rooted in Shadow and Hands Stretched to the Stars

‘In your hands is Raven Grimassi’s most personal and powerful work to date. In it he shares profound Craft teachings that will transform your relationship with magick, and your work as a Witch. I wish I’d had access to this treasure earlier on my path.’–Christopher Penczak, co-founder of the Temple of Witchcraft and author of the Plant Spirit Familiar

For the first time in more than a decade, Grimassi introduces readers to a new system of witchcraft, one that draws upon the old ways and the old days. Rich with spells, rituals, and detailed illustrations of plant spirits, Grimassi dares readers to take the path that leads deep into the darkened woods–to traverse upon the Thorned Path.

Meet the entities that dwell within the organic memory of the earth, the devas, the deities, the magical life force that lies within the wooded glen. Learn to work with these spirits, and use their wisdom to transform your life and your practice.”

I’ve been lucky enough, thanks to my work, to have had several conversations, both formal and informal, with Raven and Stephanie over the years. They are both intelligent, witty, and down-to-earth. While their spiritual teachings are what most people want from them, when I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with them at FaerieCon West 2014 in Seattle, what I really wanted to talk about was history. I wanted to dig a little bit into their respective journeys, how they discovered Witchcraft and modern Paganism, how they met, what made them who they are today. Partially because I was simply curious, but largely due to the fact that I think we often ignore these vital “origin stories” when we talk about our movement’s religious history. That it is vital to capture our “big-name” teachers and authors in relaxed and candid moments of sharing so that future generations can have a sense of who these people are, and why they were so successful in connecting with thousands of people.

So, without further delay, here is the interview, complete with a questions and answers period, with Raven Grimassi and Stephanie Taylor-Grimassi. We talk history, we talk controversy, and we talk about building tradition. I think it’s well worth the investment of listening, if you are at all drawn to their work. I’ve made the file downloadable, so you can save it and play it later if you wish.

I hope you’ll enjoy the interview, and I also hope that more individuals take the time to conduct audio and video interviews with elders, teachers, and authors within modern Paganism.

The Spring 2014 courses are starting soon at Cherry Hill Seminary, a learning institution dedicated to “practical training in leadership, ministry, and personal growth in Pagan and Nature-Based spiritualities.” Over the past couple years, Cherry Hill Seminary has made leaps and bounds towards its goal of becoming an accredited institution, and part of that is thanks to the growing number of prominent Pagan Scholars who have joined to teach courses and work on its board or administrative body. Joining that number this year is Dr. Jenny Blain, who recently retired from Sheffield Hallam University, and will be teaching “Heathenry: Altered States and Non-Human People” at CHS starting this month. Dr. Blain is author of “Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic: Ecstasy and Neo-Shamanism in North European Paganism,” and co-editor of “Researching Paganisms” in the Pagan Studies Series.

In this short interview, we discuss her decision to teach at Cherry Hill Seminary, her work on the topic of sacred landscapes, Heathenry and the practice of seidr, and more.

Dr. Jenny Blain

Dr. Jenny Blain

As someone who has been very involved with the development of Pagan Studies, particularly through the book “Researching Paganisms,” what drew you to work with Cherry Hill Seminary? Do you think that more Pagan scholars will follow your example as CHS grows in size and prominence?

I’d met Wendy on various occasions, and of course she was a contributor to Researching Paganisms, where we were attempting to bring together the different ways that people had found themselves drawn into Pagan Studies and the particular approaches that they were using. And so, a couple of years ago, Wendy asked if I’d be interested to contribute a course to Cherry Hill – but because of my work for a university in England it had to wait until retirement! I’m glad to keep a foothold in teaching, and particularly in distance learning, and of course also to help display aspects of Heathenry to people who may have some preconceptions about this religion that don’t actually chime with the way many Heathens practice.

Cherry Hill gives that opportunity and I’m excited to see how the course will develop and indeed how the Seminary can serve needs of a very diverse range of Paganisms. So, yes, there is scope for Pagan scholars to contribute to CH. I do feel it’s important that the diversity is recognised and particularly that people who are engaging in various sorts of Pagan ‘Ministry’ understand the very different approaches to sacredness and the divine which are possible and present – and of course also how these relate to other religious expressions. On which point it’s time to move to that reburial issue and some of the diversities there.

Touching briefly on your body of work, which has dealt quite a bit with the issue of ancient remains, modern Pagans, and the political issue of reburial (or display/study), what do you make of the current protests headed by Arthur Pendragon at Stonehenge over the remains at the visitor’s center? Is this an issue that you believe more Pagans should be paying attention to? Does it tie into larger issues for modern Pagans?

The issue of ancient remains is, for me, part of a much wider issue about people’s relationship with landscape and place, and with the other-than-human people that surround us. These include – but are definitely not restricted to – ‘ancestors’ in the widest sense, people who lived on the land, worked with the land, developed cultural understanding of place and self and community. To give an example, the people buried at Cairnholy in Galloway are quite probably not ‘ancestral’ to me in the sense of DNA or something like that, but they are ‘ancestral’ in terms of having lived on and with the earth and sea and rivers that my Blain ancestors, much much more recently, farmed and fished. We don’t know what these very far past ancestors thought about death, but we do know that they, some of them at least, were placed into the burial cairns with care and deliberation, into a particular set of relationships with the other beings within the landscape, whether beetles, grasses or other ‘ancestors’. In removing ‘remains’ from their context we are disrupting that relationship.

Now, sometimes that disruption can’t be helped, and many remains unearthed today are discovered during works for new buildings or new roads, with the result that the work stops and archaeologists carefully remove the remains, usually for reburial as close as possible to the site where they were found. Archaeologists do care about these things! But that leaves us with the issue of remains which have been deliberately excavated and stored for research purposes and museum display, which is mostly what Arthur and other campaigners are on about. The whole legal situation is a rather tangled mess, and there are differences between Scotland and other parts of the UK, as in Scotland the dead one has the ‘right of sepulchre’, the right to be left undisturbed unless for very good reason, whereas in England the rights pertain to descendants. The Avebury Reburial Consultation a few years ago showed how difficult it was to make a claim without being able to demonstrate ‘descent’ in the sense of either direct family line or direct cultural transmission.

The Stonehenge protests – well, Stonehenge is the best known prehistoric site in Britain, so it is an obvious target, especially with the new visitor centre developing its displays after the much-promoted recent excavations. There is a related issue about what promises were made before the excavations started, when reburial of possible new finds was discussed (the three sets of remains on display are not from the recent excavations however). I do think that this issue has to be sorted out but there may be less confrontational ways to do this! Groups such as Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD) have been working in association with archaeologists and museum curators for quite some time, but positions seem suddenly to have become much more rigid. It’s worth reading what HAD has to say about the visitor centre exhibits – and indeed I plan to be raising some of the issues of ‘ancestors’ in the course for Cherry Hill Seminary.

041525650X.01.LZZZZZZZMoving on to your Spring 2014 class at CHS, “Heathenry: Altered states and non-human people,” it seems like the class is centered in your study of oracular seidr. Could you talk a little bit about the class, and why seidr is important to explore within modern Heathenry? What purpose does this reconstructed practice serve today?

Well, first, it isn’t so much centred on seidr as using the development of seidr to explore worldview, cosmology and culture. These various things that I said above, issues of ancestors, other-than-human people, and so forth, will all be part of the course. It’s a matter of what is central to Heathenry; so, the world tree Yggdrasil, the various being (and worlds) that are on or under the Tree or which it connects, and the possibility of knowing about this cosmology through spiritual practice. And this starts with the connections and relationships that we’re part of, relationships with other-than-human people as well as with human friends and relatives.

Many Heathens don’t make seidr, and those that do don’t necessarily do the ‘oracular’ kind or follow the various ritual forms that have been developed. To me and to other Heathens to whom I’ve spoken, seidr is a way of effecting some kind of change – for instance in health, in knowledge, little tweaks if you like to the strands of Wyrd which connect us.

So, seidr and how Heathens today do this will be part of the course but not its totality. And, the purpose isn’t to develop students as seid-workers, but to equip them with an understanding of the connections that make seidr possible, and communities in which it’s being developed. Seidr is important for Heathen communities because it shows the importance of these relationships – we can ‘know’ things or ‘change’ things through respectful interaction with other wights, that is, with the other beings with whom we share space and time. Most Heathens aren’t seidworkers; those that are, are valued within their communities – just as a musician, an artist, a craft-worker, a gardener are valued.

More broadly, there have been noticeable points of difference, and even tension, between modern Heathenry, and modern Paganism. What do you think the two camps have to learn form each other? What is our common ground?

I think that there is a lot of misunderstanding about Heathenry, and that there is indeed much to be learned and shared. A few weeks ago I was giving a talk to the Pagan moot in Dundee, the city where I now live, and the talk was basically an overview of the material that will be addressed in much more depth in the Cherry Hill course. The people there were quite fascinated and much of what I said was very new to them – the basis in the Eddas and Sagas, the concept of Yggdrasil as the connection within and between worlds, the ideas of an Animist approach to landscape and to these wights, connections with Siberian shamanic practice and so on. And there were quite a few points of connection, particularly with how the concept of Wyrd gave a focus on taking responsibility for one’s actions, developing self-knowledge in order to create better relationship with others.

Finally, to return to Cherry Hill Seminary, moving forward, what do you see as your role within that learning institution? What does working with CHS bring you that a more traditional secular institution cannot? What are your feelings on building institutions like CHS within a Pagan context?

First, institutions such as Cherry Hill Seminary have different roles in different part of the world – the British context is very different to Cherry Hill Seminarythat in the US, or in Canada where I lived for a good while, and in the UK there is much less focus among Pagans (and particularly Heathens) on formal organisations. But having said that, I do see the importance of building places (virtual or physical) where Pagans can share and develop their understandings. I hope that I will be able to share some of my knowledge and at the same time learn more about ways other Paganisms are developing. In particular, though, I’d like to keep coming back to the ideas of place and landscape and time, ‘where people are’ and how this creates spiritual practice.

And what does CHS bring me – it enables an overt exploration of spirituality within a critical practitioner context. In a traditional secular organisation explorations get done in other ways, and in teaching there’s still the ‘methodological agnosticism’ that comes in when talking about religion. Of course, some anthropological theory has strongly critiqued this and some research foregrounds practitioners ways of knowing – Researching Paganisms is a contribution to this literature, and so is my book Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic. But for the CHS teaching my purpose is to help students develop their appreciations of Heathenry, landscapes, wights and worldviews, and so I can get into areas that would be difficult in a secular organisation.

Final note – there’s a book that came out in 2011, The Wanton Green, edited by Gordon MacLellan and Susan Cross, in which various Pagans discuss landscape, place and meanings. One chapter is mine – and the book is a demonstration, I think, of what can be shared and what we as practitioners of different spiritualities today can learn from each other.

I’d like to thank Dr. Blain for taking the time to answer my questions. She will be teaching “Heathenry: Altered States and Non-Human People” at CHS starting this month. Registration is still open, but will close on January 8th, so sign up now if you want to participate.

September 27th through the 29th in Salem, Massachusetts will see the debut of “OCCULT,” a “weekend long Esoteric Salon honoring, exploring and celebrating the intertwining vines which feed both Magick and Creative Art.” Co-produced by Aepril Schaile and Sarah “Jezebel” Wood the event promises to “recognize that, especially together, both Magick and Art are greater than the sum of their parts, and each in dwells the other; they are rooted together.” In anticipation of OCCULT’s launch next month, I conducted a short interview with co-producer Aepril Schaile to talk about the event, why this is the right time for it, and supporting the arts within a Pagan context.

Aepril Schaile. Photo by Cheryl Fair.

Aepril Schaile. Photo by Cheryl Fair.

OCCULT is called an “Esoteric Salon,” merging artistic and metaphysical pathways through performance, workshops, and talks. What inspired you to help make this event happen? Why is now the right time?

Sarah Jezebel Wood and I began talking about this vision last year. We are both Witches, and Thelemites, and practicing Artists. Sarah is an accomplished bellydancer and teacher, and she is devoted to nurturing the work of artists in her communities. Sarah worked with Alex and Alison Grey at CoSM for several years, and so this idea of Art and Magick being one unit is not a new one for her. The timing was an intuitive thing—we felt that the fact that the vision was forming for us both with such excitement in that very moment meant that its time had come–synchronicity! We also recognize a movement into a New Aeon, and with it comes new ways of doing things. At the time of the Parisian Salons of the turn of the last century, there was also a renaissance in occult and Magickal consciousness in connection to Art. We have the romantic notion that the time is now for this mixing of art, magick, thought, creativity, personality, passion, vision, and spirit to take place.

You are an artist who has worked in several mediums, most notably dance and music, do you think the Pagan community engages with the arts in a constructive way? Are we paying enough attention to the importance of art within our traditions, are we supporting our artists? If not, is OCCULT a step towards addressing that issue?

I personally feel that my work has been recognized and supported in wonderful ways by the Pagan and Witchcraft communities. In particular my work in dance, which probably most widely known, but music, too; I receive mail by email and even paper letter (fun!) with heartfelt and thoughtful words, and it is incredible to me what power art has to animate and inspire the spirit and imagination. I also tend to bring the Witches and Thelemites out of the woodwork wherever I travel for performance–they make themselves known in my workshops and after shows, as they come out to see me, and this is amazing to me! The Thelemic community has been great in supporting this work; OCCULT has many Thelemic presenters and artists on board for our debut year, and the full support of our local body, Knights Templar Oasis. That said, I am greedy; I’d like more overall engagement. Our Artists are our Shamans; they are our Seers and Healers and Guides. OCCULT is an effort to make this connection more conscious and enlivened. I’d like to see more Pagans, Witches and Occult practitioners support the arts by coming out to shows, explicitly recognizing each other’s work, and continue developing a more sophisticated sense of what art is and why it matters. OCCULT is, to us, a step in that direction.

occultYou live and work in Salem, and that’s where OCCULT is being held. Is there something special about Salem that makes an event like this possible?

We are here doing this work on the shoulders of those who came before us. As all things move in cycles, we feel that the time is correct for the coming together of new ideas and approaches. We feel that Salem is indeed an epicenter, and that is undergoing a renaissance of ideas and vision. Many of the old Witch wars have run their course, and there is a thirst for more visible and inclusive happenings that go beyond Witch-Disney type money making tourist hype. We have perceived that there is a new generation that seeks to engage with the magickal arts in a more sophisticated and integrated way. The greater Salem area is full of artists, and many of the Pagans, Witches, occult practitioners, Thelemites and Ceremonial Magicians we have in our circles are also creative artists. We are building on some of the occult themed art shows and events that have already happened in Salem, and expanding upon those ideas and happenings.

OCCULT’s vision statement seems to call for a return to meaning in art, a process of re-enchantment that rejects mere commercialism as the end-all, be-all of making art. That art needs magick just as much as magick needs art. How should the Pagan community start living this ethos? How should the world of fine art?

I hold a Master’s of Fine Art, so I am acquainted with the art world from both an academic and a practicing artist’s viewpoint. I felt alienated early on by the emphasis that I perceived on materials and form, as opposed to content and meaning. I was also, quite naively, stunned by some of the divorcing of spirit from the artistic process. I had automatically perceived art as being inherently spiritual, and magickal. I found that what I recognized as ancient mythological and archetypal patterns would often be dismissed as “cliché”. Would the ancient Greeks at Eleusis have said, “Let’s not do this ritual theatre thing anymore…its been done to death already…so…cliché?” Of course not! But there is a place for keeping art innovated and contemporary, and to keep it growing while honoring these ancient patterns. Many of the artists that Sarah and I chose for OCCULT create work which has this quality: it is informed by contemporary fine art, but it honors and expresses beyond that. Some of the work is deeply self-exploratory and shamanic, some is talismanic, some is ritualistic, some is qabalistic, some surrealistic, etc.

Assuming OCCULT’s success, what’s next? Will this be the first of many salons? Will you take it outside of Salem? Can OCCULT become a new model for Pagan and esoteric engagement with the arts?

Thank you for assuming our success! Wonderful! Yes, Sarah and I plan is to make this a yearly event. We hope to stay in Salem; one of the great challenges that we have had has been space, as it is as a premium in Salem! We have had great experience with the First Universalist Society, both with their open minded and all inclusive spiritual vision, and they have just been super easy and supportive to work with. It turns out that their event coordinator, Alex Coco, is also a Pagan, and along with his wife Nicke, runs Eastern MA Pagan Pride Day! So we lucked out! We’d like to keep it here in Salem, and continue to attract the caliber of teachers and artists that we have this year. We have been so very blessed thus far in manifesting this dream!

***

You can find out more about OCCULT at the event’s website.

On June 12th, I reported on an upcoming documentary focusing on the Temple of Nine Wells in Salem, Massachusetts, and the lives of Richard and Gypsy Ravish, entitled “With Love From Salem.” Directed by Karagan Cratty Griffith, and produced by Logios Projects/Red Bird Productions, the first trailer for the film has been released.

Richard Ravish was one of the original “Witches of Salem,” and passed away in 2012 at the age of 59. Priestess Amy “Gypsy” Ravish is a popular Pagan singer-songwriter known for her albums “Enchantress” and “Spirit Nation.” Together they led Sabbats with the Temple of Nine Wells in Salem, Massachusetts for over 20 years. They helped shape the unique spirit that is modern religious Witchcraft in Salem, a spirit that is deeply entwined with those accused and executed for the crime of witchcraft in 1692.

“Salem is, on it’s own merit and historically so, a mark in American history. The year of 1692 was a time of suffering and injustice – 20 innocent people died at the hands of their accusers. Witchcraft was used as a definition and excuse for these trials. But what about now? How do witches today in Salem Massachusetts pay homage to these victims? The Temple of Nine Wells has been walking to Gallows Hill on Samhain night for more than 20 years to honor the dead and the victims of the witch hysteria of 1692. This documentary will walk you through this event, from preparation to ritual, as well as through the differences between Samhain and Halloween, the sacred and the profane. An inside perspective of Samhain night in Salem, and of the men and women who through dedication and personal commitment continue to make a difference. With love, from Salem.”

I was able to conduct a short interview with Director Karagan Griffith, an Alexandrian High Priest with a background in acting and directing, about the film, why it was made, and when the public will get to see the completed project.

Karagan Cratty Griffith

Karagan Cratty Griffith

What motivated you to tell the story of Richard and Gypsy Ravish and the Temple of Nine Wells? What does their story tell us about them, about the Temple, and about Salem?

I have been a personal friend of Gypsy and Richard for quite some time. Since I met them I became fascinated by what they were doing, their commitment and passion for the Craft and those who practice it. I remember going to the first Temple of Nine Wells Ritual. It was in the Old Town Hall in Salem, and I thought that if public ritual was something to be done, then that was the way to do it. The documentary is precisely about that passion and commitment not only in an internal perspective of the Temple of Nine Wells but also in a more broad community sense. The idea of making the documentary came from the first time I attended to a Samhain ritual at Gallows Hill with the Temple of Nine Wells. The adherence of the people, the walk chanting up to Gallows Hill and the ritual itself, told me that this could not remain untold. I had to keep it and record it. I didn’t want to do just a recording of the ritual, so I thought that it would be a good idea to expand the recording to a documentary that would include their history/story but also the history/story of Salem and of the victims of the Witch-Hunters hysteria of 1692.

I think those of us outside of Salem often have a distorted picture of Witchcraft there. There’s so much media, especially around Samhain, that I think the lives and practices of the Salem Witches can get buried. As clergy who officiated a Samhain ritual for 20 years, what do you think the Ravishes teach us about the reality of Witchcraft in Salem?

Love is the word. I think that this is why I did this and they let me do it. Twenty years of Samhain rituals (and not only Samhain but all the Wheel of the Year was celebrated by the Temple, although the documentary focuses more on the Samhain ritual) have to be done with love. There wouldn’t be any other way. Again, the commitment , passion and love for the Craft was and still is what moved Gypsy and Richard all these years. I would also add generosity to list of words, since it was out of generosity that Gypsy and Richard gave all of this to Salem. Every year, on Samhain night, they took us up to the Hill to remember all of those who passed the Veil, including those who died in 1692. As Richard say in the documentary, we claimed the unclaimed, we took and remember those who in 1692 no one took, those who are buried without markers. Gypsy and Richard teach us about love. That is truly what they teach us about.

Finally, could you share a little bit about the making of this film? What’s gone into it? How long has it taken you? What were the challenges of doing this documentary?

The documentary was completely filmed with a Sony Bloggie, hand-held, without a camera stand. It is a very real documentary. I follow the making and all the preparations for the ritual in Gallows Hill, including meetings and decision making. I covered the walk up to Gallows Hill and the silent candle light walk back to the Salem witch memorial, escorted by the wonderful policemen who every year are there to make sure we are safe. We can see the ritual in Gallows Hill, the beautiful music and dance up in the Hill, and intimate conversations with Gypsy and Richard about how did it all begin. It is a journey through the history/story of Salem, the Temple of Nine Wells and Gypsy and Richard’s life and contributions for more than 20 years for the Salem community.

I started to collect footage for the documentary in 2011, so it took me almost two years to complete this project. I do have a good excuse since I am the director, cinematographer, producer with Jimahl di Fiosa and RedBird Productions. It is a very modest project but one that took great pleasure to make. The challenges were of course many, but when you are doing a documentary where the love, commitment and dedication is contagious, you will thrive on that to overcome any of the challenges.

Oh, and now that we have the trailer, when can we expect to see the whole film, and how will it be released?

The documentary will be released soon in Salem to the public and we are looking at some of the venues here to do that. We do not have a date yet but will be between June and July. We will have of course a private viewing of the documentary at Nu Aeon here in Salem for the members of the Temple of Nine Wells. Right after the release in Salem to the public, we will host a world premiere through a Hangout on Google+ with the presence of Gypsy and a selected number of guests and representatives of the various communities all over the world.

***

For updates on “With Love From Salem,” see the film’s official Facebook page. I’d like to thank Karagan Griffith for taking the time to answer some of my questions, and I look forward to the film’s premiere. The Wild Hunt will keep you posted once further details are announced.

In the past decade I’ve noticed a rapid increase in the number of modern Pagans who have taken initiations in African diasporic religions like Santeria, Vodou, and Palo Mayombe. Likewise, a growing number of elders and teachers in those traditions have started to attend Pagan events like PantheaCon in San Jose, California. I’ve long been interested in the shared struggles our faiths face, and find the increasing interactions a fascinating and under-studied phenomenon. What will this growing trend mean both for modern Pagan religions and for the African diasporic faiths?

To address some of these questions I’ve interviewed Stacey Lawless (Ngueyo Ndumba Kunayanda), who lives in the Southeastern United States where she is currently reinventing herself. A Pagan for most of her life, she is also an aborisha in Santería and an engueyo in Palo Mayombe. She writes, draws, paints, and has recently started a blog. Stacey is in the process of finishing a Master’s degree in American History and is considering a move to the West Coast. In addition, she wil be starting a monthly column here at The Wild Hunt about her journey into Palo Mayombe.

Let’s start with your religious background, how did you come to modern Paganism, and was there anything from that time that presaged your interest in Palo?

Oh hell. I kind of hate talking about my background in Paganism, because I essentially spent two decades trying to figure out what I was doing. I wish I’d been deeply rooted in something cool and become super-competent in life and magic, but nope. I came to it in high school through a love of nature, plus a love of folklore and the occult, but mostly I read a lot of books and made art on Pagan themes. I did dabble in a few traditions, especially Asatru, but nothing ever clicked for me. I was so hungry for something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was for way too many years.

Asatru did, in a way, foreshadow Palo for me. Something about the runes and the lesser spirits – the disir and huldre, especially – were close enough to whatever it was I was searching for that I kept trying to convince myself I was on the right track, even when I didn’t actually practice the religion any more. I probably drove all my Heathen friends nuts over the last few years as I just couldn’t quite let go . . .

Renee Stout - Eyes of Legba (monoprint) 2002

Renee Stout – Eyes of Legba (monoprint) 2002

What started you on your path to Palo? Was it a gradual process? Did it emerge from a dissatisfaction with what modern Pagan religions had to offer you?

Art started me on this path. I walked into an exhibition called “Dear Robert, I’ll See You at the Crossroads,” which was a series of works by Renee Stout about Robert Johnson and hoodoo, and it blew my mind. I’m still a huge fan of her art, and it’s had a lot of influence on mine. From there I got interested in African, African-American, and Caribbean arts, especially pieces made for religious use. I read about Haitian Vodou and Santería (or as many of us call it, Ocha), and for a while in the ‘90s I thought I wanted to go into Vodou. But I had no idea how to find a house (and was nervous about it anyway) so I let the idea go. (I confess I did try mixing it with Wicca, but that felt like an insipid way to approach the lwa, so I stopped.)

Mostly, though, I dug in my heels and went into heavy denial of the fact that there was a current of African-influenced something-or-other that tugged at me. I wanted to be Pagan, I wanted to learn the Old Ways of Europe, and I had no earthly idea how I might actually enter one of the Afro-Caribbean religions – not that I tried hard to find out. I just flirted with the idea and kept telling myself that it wasn’t really for me.

In the middle of my Heathen years, I met the man who became my partner, who at the time was a recently-made aborisha (someone with the lower-level Ocha initiations, but not a priest), and we started talking because I recognized the elekes he was wearing. (As a friend of mine put it, “Aw honey, now they’ve sent you a boy.”) We started dating, I joined his Ocha community and became an aborisha myself, and the Orishas began opening doors for me. A year ago, Eleggúa told me in divination that I needed Palo.

And I still dug in my heels and resisted. I did try to join a friend’s munanso (Palo community), but the plans we made for my initiation fell apart dramatically, and I seized the chance to proclaim that maybe it was all a mistake and I didn’t really need Palo. (I can’t recommend this approach to Orisha religion, by the way. They give you advice for a reason.) Luckily, I’d met my Tata-to-be online shortly after that mess, and luckily, he’s a fairly patient man. I finally got over myself and made rayamiento, Palo initiation, in November.

(And, of course, Palo turned out to be the thing I had been searching for all those years. I don’t think anyone who knows me was the slightest bit surprised.)

Stacey Lawless

Stacey Lawless

Is it easy for you to balance your now-dual religious identity? Do you feel like both a Pagan and a student/initiate of Palo? Does one identity dominate?

This is a tricky question to answer. I’ve felt like a Pagan for my entire adult life, despite never finding a home in any Pagan tradition. I thought that Palo would put an end to that, but quite the contrary. I’ve been gaining clarity on what Paganism might mean to me, and some doors have recently opened onto the community that I would never in a million years have expected. I don’t know what the future has in store, but it seems that I’m not done with Paganism yet.

My perspective on it has changed, though. I no longer see Paganism (or Palo or Ocha, for that matter) in terms of beliefs, cosmologies, or ritual forms. I see them in terms of serving gods and spirits in the ways in which they want to be served. So it’s really not a matter of balancing identities or religions; it’s more about maintaining relationships.

I do have a couple of spirit allies from my Pagan past, and the way my relationship with them has changed since the rayamiento is fascinating. I had such a heady, intellectual approach to them before, like I was always half-consciously doing comparative religion around their characteristics. Now they’re beings I know and spend time with.

There seems to be a growing interest in religions like Santeria, Vodou, and Palo among modern Pagans, having lived this process, what do you think drives it? Is there a yearning for authenticity there?

That’s a tough one. I know a number of people who came to Santería from Paganism; some shed their Paganism, others still practice a Pagan religion alongside Ocha, but all of them felt a spiritual calling to Ocha. On the other hand, from what I’ve seen online, there are clearly Pagans out there who are just cherry-picking what they like from the Afro-Caribbean religions and inserting it (sometimes with hilarious results) into their own practices. Neither approach seems to have a lot to do with a hunger for authenticity.

I don’t know. People have always been drawn to these religions for many reasons – the lure of power, a desire for healing, academic interest, involvement with the community, following a significant other or parent in, or even just love for the religions. Maybe some Pagans feel like they need something “realer” than what they’ve got, but I hope for Paganism’s sake that that’s not the only attraction.

What do you think your future with Palo will be like? What do you envision for yourself as you continue to assume the identity of a Palo initiate?

I hope I learn what I need to learn well, and hope I become a good healer. Almost everything in my life is undergoing change right now, so I’m just trying to navigate by what I hope for and let the journey carry me forward.

I think it was Anne Lamott who said, “If you want to give God a laugh, tell Her your plans.”

[The following is a post from The Wild Hunt archives. The Wild Hunt is on hiatus through Labor Day weekend and will return with new posts on Tuesday, September 4th.]

Despite the fact that the history of the United States is incredibly well-documented, many of us labor under various misapprehensions regarding our nation’s past. This seems especially true of America’s religious history. Lately it seems as if there’s been an inundation of pundits, amateur historians, and demagogues trying to frame us into a reductive (Protestant) Christian mold, painting a picture of harmony and piety that endured until the post-60s culture wars started raging. This sort of narrative leaves little room for religious minorities and outsiders to understand their own experiences, or draw accurate lessons from history. While recent books by Leigh SchmidtChas Clifton,Courtney Bender, and others, have taken the time to explore religious perspectives outside of this paradigm, there’s still a great need to deconstruct and analyze just how our current ideas about American religiosity were formed.

Kevin M. Schultz, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Illinois in Chicago, in his new book “Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise,” recounts how goodwill and interfaith groups in the early 20th century battled a rise of nativistic politics, antisemitism, and anti-Catholicism to forge the notion of a “Judeo-Christian” America and ultimately (and somewhat unintentionally) usher in a sweeping disestablishment of religion in the United States. A look at how toxic religious nativism can be avoided in favor of pluralism, and how mistrusted religious minorities navigated an America dominated by Protestant Christianity. I think Schultz’s book should be required reading, especially for religious minorities currently struggling for equal treatment in American culture. I was lucky enough to conduct an interview with Kevin M. Schultz about the book, exploring how a new religious image of America was formed in the 20th century, how religious conservatives today exploit that image, and what lessons religious minorities today can take from this period in history.

What prompted you to write “Tri-Faith America?” It certainly seem very relevant to the state of religion and politics in America today. Do you feel this is a bit of forgotten history?

When I wrote “Tri-Faith America,” I wrote it purely as a piece of history. I was interested in the debates about pluralism and “getting along” that took place during World War II, or more generally after the 1930s, when class differences dominated American politics, and before the 1960s, when the civil rights movement thrust race so dramatically into the national consciousness.

As I began to investigate the question, which was in fact not very often investigated, it became increasingly clear to me that battles between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were vitally important to Americans of that era. These debates dominated the development of the suburbs, the Supreme Court cases, the census, what should be taught in schools, and even the make-up of Little League teams.

It was only after I discovered all these debates that I saw how they fit into the question about whether or not America is a Christian nation, a debate that, as your question suggests, is relevant to the state of religion and politics today. Many of the actors in my story were saying things like “We need a broader, more inclusive, and more accurate conception of the American nation.” Given the limits of the time, they adopted a “tri-faith” model, inviting Catholics and Jews to the table for the first time.

I think many people would be surprised at how manufactured our modern ideas of America as a “Judeo-Christian” country are, that we went from a status quo where, according to Franklin D. Roosevelt, “the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance,” to one where the commonalities between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were stressed and a united religious front seen as vital to our nation. It seems remarkable that interfaith and goodwill organizations were able to so quickly turn the United States away from the growing nativism of the times. I understand that WW2 was a great cultural unifier, but the momentum had begun even before that. To what do you ascribe the underlying success of this “tri-faith” effort?

First off, I think I’d disagree with the part of the question where you say “were able to so quickly turn the US away from nativism.” It took a lot of work!

But I think two things are at play in this transformation, a transformation from, to put it too simply, nativism to an acceptance of pluralism. First, and I don’t go into this much in my book, a lot of Americans were challenging the underlying structures of racism, things like the 19th century notion of the hierarchy of races, which of course always premised white Protestant superiority and then had all other groups lower in the hierarchy, with black people always at the bottom. Lots of Americans were challenging this idea in the first decades of the twentieth century–scientists, Leftist Jewish intellectuals, some progressive reformers, many folks in the labor movement of the 1930s, and my interfaith folks, who were demanding greater inclusion and a new national image.

Out of this mix arose the folks I study in the book, who worked hard to reconceptualize the predominate notion of what it meant to be an American. They went on the road, setting up little morality plays with a priest, a rabbi, and a minister on stage all jabbing each other, asking the hard questions–can a non-Catholic get to Heaven? Do Jews run the world? They went to Des Moines and Debuque. They filmed movie-shorts. Ironically, they were helped greatly by Adolf Hitler, who presented an image that Americans sought to avoid, and one way of doing so was by being tolerant of other faiths. The US Armed Forced supported it too, somewhat remarkably inviting these religious advocates on military bases all over the world, one of the only non-military groups to be given such access. Then the Cold War against those godless communists cemented the image of America as a land of religious pluralism.

So it took some time, and was the result of people working hard to create a new image of America.

One thing that struck me in your book is seeing Catholics as outsiders, as a somewhat suspect religious minority struggling to gain political and social parity with the nation’s Protestants. One quote in particular from Carlton J.H. Hayes (the first Catholic co-chairman of the National Conference of Christians and Jews) seemed particularly relevant: “I have always maintained that in this country Protestants have the major responsibility for assuring justice and true toleration to non-Protestants, not because they are Protestants but because they are [the] majority group.” With Catholics now the largest Christian denomination in the United States, I can’t imagine a prominent Catholic lay-leader repeating these words, or words very much like them. The idea of the politically dominant faiths in this country “assuring justice and true toleration” to smaller faiths now seems almost radical. Are shifts away from sentiments like these simply a by-product of success? Has tri-faith America lost the ethos of protecting religious minorities today?

Ah, but Catholics were the largest Christian denomination even then, although most Catholics take issue with the label “denomination.” Perhaps saying the largest group of Christians is better.

What changed was the nation’s perception of itself. Now, instead of having Protestants dominating the nation’s social and moral authority, most minority faiths are more or less tolerated and protected, and even to some extent endorsed. The addition of Muslim, Buddhist, and maybe soon a Wiccan chaplain in the military might be one example.

But this tolerance and pluralism came at a cost: conservatives of all stripes–Protestants, Catholics, and Jews–have seen all this tolerance as a sign of a secularizing society. The timing made this seem accurate–it began in the late 1960s and 1970s. So today, instead of having Catholics as a sizable minority demanding inclusion, now many Catholics see themselves as defending the last ramparts of Christianity and civilization. Any breech demands a response and minority faiths present a certain challenge–they might just be the camel’s nose in the tent.

An important split in post-war tri-faith unity was the differing visions of America’s religious future and the idea of pluralism. For Catholics, who were growing in prominence and influence, an “all-in” pluralism was endorsed, where every faith commingled (and competed) in the public square, but for the Jewish community, who were wary of Catholicism’s history of persecution in Europe, secularism seemed the best option. While legal efforts have raised the wall between church and state and helped bring about historic disestablishment rulings, this split over the role of religion in our public life now rages hotter than ever. Where do you think we are going? Will there be a re-establishment, or will post-war secular gains hold?

As a historian, I always hate to predict the future. And the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on religion in public life are awkward, but they do shine a little light. Basically the Supreme Court has said religious icons that are old–say, having “In God We Trust” on our money or “under God” in our pledge, both of which came in the 1950s–are okay. We’re honoring our past. But having new religious icons in public space–say, building a giant statue of the 10 Commandments in a courthouse–is a symbol of endorsement. This isn’t terribly doctrinaire or logical, but as a pragmatic decision, it makes some sense.

My notion is that as a society we will continue to create space for worshipers of all faiths, even secular humanists and atheists–and this is a direct follow up of Tri-Faith America. But alongside that, more and more people will be able to bring their religious perspective openly into the public sphere, and this won’t be automatic grounds for dismissal. The burden then, of course, is for religious people to be able to make secular arguments. The idea that same sex marriage is wrong because it contradicts your faith is fine, but why should everyone have to live to the standards of your faith? If you can create a secular argument for why same sex marriage should be outlawed, then there will be a conversation, and that’s the best we can hope for in a democracy!

While the forming of a Judeo-Christian consciousness had many benefits for future religious minority communities, most notably the idea that “there was no such thing as neutral advocacy of religion,” it also provided a language and framework for the conservative Christian activists of today. Today many of them off-handedly talk of our “Judeo-Christian” heritage, or invoke the post-war/early Cold War religious consensus as a period they’d like to return to. I was particularly taken aback by a quote from a Catholic newspaper that you highlight: “Non-Christian religious groups, prompted by the presence of many of their children in public schools, are seeking to dilute or to eliminate Christ from Christmas.” Rhetoric like that could have easily been placed in the mouth of many “keep Christ in Christmas” activists today. How much do conservative Christian activists owe to this period, and how much is their conception of history shaped by it?

Yes, I was struck by that too. A lot of the conversations I found in the archives could have happened on The Daily Show or Fox News last week. It was remarkable.

As for how much today’s conservatives owe to the formulations of middle of the twentieth century, I think the answer is “not much.” The reason is because they are ignorant of it. They think (as do lefties, I should add) that something called “Judeo-Christianity” has been around forever, when in fact it was more or less invented in the late 1930s to combat Hitler and to bring Jews into the fold of “good Americanism.” Well, the thinking then went, if we can’t be “Protestant” or even “Christian,” what’s next? Judeo-Christian? Okay, let’s go with that. It wasn’t quite this simple, but that was the progression of thought, and the effort was to increase inclusivity. Today’s conservatives, however, use “Judeo-Christian” as an exclusive term–to keep those secularists and atheists and Muslims and Hindus out–and that’s the real distinction.

As for bringing Christ back into Christmas, there is a long history to that complaint, going back to the early 20th century and basically the invention of mass marketing and advertising.

Today the splits in religion seem to be between liberal and conservative visions of America (and theology), not between Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. You note that the United State’s growing religious diversity since the 1960s has “made it difficult to refer to the United States as a ‘Judeo-Christian nation’,” though this growth hasn’t supplanted the “liberal-conservative divide.” Is America moving towards a post-Christian identity, religiously speaking, or do you think the conservative religious alliances will manage to hold back (or even reverse) this tide?

Good question, and again I hate to guess about the future. I do think it would take extraordinary circumstances for the United States to become a “Christian nation,” whatever that might mean (and few advocates bother to develop a vision). There just are too many diverse faiths in America and too many constitutional protections to kill off all our religious pluralism. Plus, if you look back to colonial Massachusetts, even those folks felt like they were living in un-Christian times. Recall that the great form of speech then was the Jeremiad. The threat of a coming American godlessness has a long, long history.

If you were to offer a lesson from the history of Tri-Faith America for religious minorities struggling today for acceptance and equal treatment, what would it be?

Histories lessons are always complicated because the events of the past happen in contexts that are very different from those that exist today. One of the things the advocates of “Tri-Faith America” did quite successfully, though, was to present a positive and forceful image of what it meant to be an American, one that made their position the obvious next step. They were fighting over the meaning of America, and they were using historical actors and historical antecedents to push their vision forward. Today’s conservatives are much better at this than today’s liberals. But religious minorities in the past have used the various languages of good Americanism to show they belong, and those arguments were very successful for the people I study too.

My thanks to Kevin M. Schultz for the interview, you can find ”Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise” at AmazonBarnes & NoblePowell’sGoogle, and other fine book (and e-book) sellers.

[The following is a guest interview with John Matthews, author of "The Sidhe: Wisdom from the Celtic Otherworld" and 90 other books, co-creator of The Wildwood Tarot.  Matthews and fellow Wildwood Tarot co-creator Mark Ryan, who played "Nasir" on Robin of Sherwood, will be appearing in Atlanta, Georgia this November to conduct a workshop. The interview was conducted by Virginia Chandler, with an introduction written by John Matthews.]

For many people today, the woodlands are the last vestiges of the mystical world in which we had our beginning. Such places are full of classic archetypes from Robin Hood to the shadowy figures of the Green Man and Woman. To walk in the wild wood is to take a journey back in time to a place where we, ourselves, are different; a place where deep ancestral wisdom still resides; a place where a partnership with the denizens of the wild wood is as natural as breathing.

Based on the seasonal rhythms and festivals of the ancient year, The Wildwood Tarot is filled with the rich mythology and shamanic mysteries of the ancient Celts. Deep within the Wildwood system lies the mystical archetypes of The Green Man, The Blasted Oak, the Archer and the Hooded Man and many others of forest lore.

The archetypal forces of the pack act as both guides and interpreters, taking the user on a spiritual, mystical and psychological journey deep into the labyrinth of primal Earth mysteries. Used as a meditation system, divinatory Oracle, or as a reference work for the seeker of profound knowledge, The Wildwood Tarot will draw you into the heart of the ancient forest and allow you to open up to its mysteries.

Will Worthington, Mark Ryan, and John Matthews

Will Worthington, Mark Ryan, and John Matthews (Wildwood Tarot launch party)

Virginia Chandler: What was your personal inspiration for creating The Wildwood Tarot?

John Matthews: I think the inspiration is really Mark Ryan, because he was the only begetter of The Greenwood Tarot, on which Wildwood is very firmly based. I came along 10 years later. I’d hoped that the original deck would be reprinted, but when it became evident that the original artist, Chesca Potter, was not around to do this, I suggested that Mark should look for another artist and redo it that way. As we talked about this I made a few suggestions of ways that the original concept seemed incomplete and Mark responded by suggesting that he and I collaborate on a new version. The result was The Wildwood Tarot, but I find Mark a very inspiring person to work with. We’ve been friends for 20 odd years and share a lot of interests in common. And of course we were fortunate to secure the services of one of the premier artists of our time, Will Worthington, who understands the nature of the Wildwood and the Robin Hood mythos which is part of it, better than almost anyone else I know of.

VC: What can we find within the Wildwood?

JM: All kinds of wildness and wonder. The medieval ideas of the “wild wood” was like a cupboard into which they stuffed everything they were afraid of – Wodwose, Green Men, demons, strange creatures – and of course the most fearful thing of all- wild women and their sexuality!

VC: As journeymen, what would be the one item that we must take with us into the Wildwood?

JM: Courage.

VC: Where should we seek the Wildwood?

JM: The wildwood is everywhere. It’s inside us. It’s outside us. And, of course, if you happen to be near any of the more ancient forests, not just in Europe; then, you are in touch with the source itself. But for me, it’s about journeying into an inner landscape that is deeply embedded within us. We have a wild nature that most of us have forgotten, but it’s there. And it’s both light and dark. There are ancient atavistic things that need to be approached with care. But even these, if faced up to, can bring blessings.

VC: What is the archetype that you most closely identity with from the Wildwood Tarot?

JM: I have to say I think it’s the Archer. There is something about this powerful image and the sense of direction, of one pointedness and determination. Although we portray the Archer as female in the pock, it can be of either gender.

VC: The Wildwood Tarot is in its third printing; why do you think that this deck resonates with so many people?

JM: Precisely because it touches into a very deep level to the primal energy that still drives us. We may think of ourselves as civilized, but there is always a wildness within.

VC: Why “Wildwood “? What’ so “wild” about it?

JM: I think it’s the freedom, the undisciplined energy that’s within us all – exactly what you feel when you enter the wild anywhere, or if you let your garden grow wild. Even if most of us don’t want to admit it, there’s a memory latent that grabs people in a profound way.

VC: What is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

JM: (laugh) Twice what you think it is.

VC: Do you have a favorite card or piece of artwork from the deck?

JM: Either The Archer or The Great Bear. Both, it seems to me, really captures the energy of the Wildwood. But to be honest I love them all.

VC: Other than your upcoming visit to Atlanta in November, what other Wild events do you have planned for 2012?

JM: Well, we hope to continue circling the globe with as many workshops and seminars and book signings as possible – until our global empire is greater than any other and we can take over the world. At the moment, Caitlín and I are contemplating a special event here, in the UK, around Christmas next year at the amazing and legendary Hawkwood College. This will bring together all the many decks we have worked on over the years – one of which will, of course, be The Wildwood Tarot.

More Information on The Wild Wood Tarot.

More Information on the The Atlanta Wildwood Weekend and Signing.

One of my favorite non-fiction books published this year was Rob Young’s “Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music,” a wide-ranging, adventurous, and  deeply pleasing work that traces the beginnings, rise, and legacy of British folk music. Not content to merely provide discographies and musical influences, Young digs deeper into the romanticism, yearnings, and spiritual dimensions of making a “British” music, mapping an “Other Britain” or “Albion” that exists as an ideal, a repository of the nation’s constructed hopes and aspirations. Young also makes connections between folklore, folk music, and the then-emerging Witchcraft revival. I was lucky enough to conduct a short interview with Young recently about the book, quizzing him about everything from Cecil Sharp to Nick Drake’s “pagan” tendencies.

Rob Young, author of "Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music."

Rob Young, author of "Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music."

You seem to touch often on the theme of there being a Britain, and an “Other Britain.” The “Electric Eden” or “Albion” created by “fragments and survivals” from a distant and often romanticized past. The thing that links Cecil Sharp to “The Wicker Man” to modern artists like Sharron Kraus, Julian Cope, or Kate Bush in your book. Could you talk a bit about how this Other Britain came to be?

I feel it’s something that has slowly, organically formed itself over decades, even centuries, mainly through a very particular seam of cultural artefacts and artists. A figure like William Blake is crucial here – in poems like ‘Milton’ and ‘Jerusalem’ he invoked a Britain of the Druids, and painted ancient monuments like Stonehenge (without actually having seen it), and a spiritual lineage in Britain that connected with the pre-Christian era. For him that would have been a way of evading the strictures of the organised church which was an anathema, and of course he was fascinated with the myth of Adam and Eve, the pure state of mankind before the Fall, which seems to underlie much Romantic nature writing of the same period. Blake’s distrust of the ‘dark Satanic mills’ of capitalism was taken up by the likes of William Morris, another figure very important to the opening pages of my book, with his passionate opposition to the destructive forces of Victorian industry and ‘improvement’.

It’s a very complex question, but really I think the industrial revolution has much to do with it – beginning around 1760, when a Parliamentary act called ‘Inclosure’ forcibly removed common lands from the folk and scooped them into private ownership. That pushed many agricultural workers towards the new cities and factories where the only remaining employment opportunities lay. This displacement is at the bottom of so much of the British empathy with the countryside, I believe, as so much utopian thought and music here seems to desire to tap into folk memories of an unsullied rural state of mind which now appears like a golden age. Surviving relics from the world before that industrial ‘Fall’ are revered: old buildings, texts, songs, etc, are like talismans to be treasured, as a connective chain to the past. A lot of the artists you mention in the question have made work which seems to reach back to this mythical age – the fantasy/fairytale aspects of Kate Bush; Julian Cope’s interest in prehistoric megaliths, The Wicker Man which is like an encyclopedia of British folk customs and costumes, imagining a fully functioning British pagan society, one untouched by the later Catholic/Protestant schisms.

You connect folk music in Britain with “the cyclic revolve of the seasons and the ritual year,” with each generation drawing its own interpretations and meanings from folklore. How relevant do you feel this emphasis on the ritual year is today? Where do you see this impulse’s strongest embodiment in modern British music?

Unfortunately I don’t see it all that much in music except in very tiny micro-scenes of ‘wyrd folk’ made by people who appear to genuinely crave a kind of return to an idealised, medievalist, Anglo-Saxon way of life. The experimental band Coil made a highly successful series of ‘Solstice’ records, recorded actually on each solstice, sometimes out in the open air, and released as soon as possible after the event. I thought that was an interesting exercise that actually produced some great music. More generally I think there are some artists – like Sharron Kraus, who you mentioned above, and Alasdair Roberts, who are very aware of the magical aspects of rural song and their set lists are accordingly loaded with appropriate material, either traditional or self-written. In the world of modern composition people like Peter Maxwell Davies, Michael Finnissy, Harrison Birtwistle and Judith Weir are a few names whose music has connected with occult aspects of the landscape and folkloric traditions.

Book cover.

I found your sections dealing with the intersections of folk music, folk artists, and the revival of Pagan Witchcraft to be very interesting. You state that the two are “strikingly similar?” Could you expand on this a bit for my audience?

This was one of the most fascinating sections of the book to research. Throughout the process I was very aware of the ideas – often conflicting – of ‘authenticity’ that always come into play when folk music and culture are discussed, and as I went on I realised how much of what’s popularly thought to be ancient and sanctioned by time is often an invention of more recent provenance. From reading people like Ronald Hutton you begin to realise that the same applies to the history of Pagan Witchcraft in Britain – current practice seems to be a patchwork of texts and rituals collated by the likes of Gerald Gardner. I met people who had been studying folklore of witchcraft in the late 60s, a couple called Dave and Toni Arthur, and who befriended Alex Sanders, who I’m sure many of your readers will know as the ‘King of the Witches’ in the UK at the time. Dave was loaned Sanders’s Book of Shadows to copy and study, and he found that much of it was cobbled together from older books like Aradia and even bits of Shakespeare. (As an intriguing aside, Toni is famous here as a former presenter of kids’ TV programmes in the 70s).

For them, it simply proved that the Witchcraft rituals were inauthentic in the usual sense. And you can apply the same logic to the main body of folk music, when you learn that much of what’s considered medieval or even dating back to pagan times was often printed on Broadsides in the 18th and 19th centuries. But for me, it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that these survive as genuinely useful traditions, which are still being passed on and mutated, in a folkloric process of transmission. Hundreds of thousands of pagan witches practise with these things all over the world, so how can that invalidate the tradition? Similarly with folk music, I don’t really care how the stuff was gathered, or whether things are 50 or 300 years old – the music is there, its materiality is undeniable and it’s put to use in all sorts of ways by all sorts of musicians with all sorts of contrasting agendas. That for me is what makes these sectors of culture so exciting and robust – that they persist and endure with or without the permission of the media, State-sanctioned culture and all the usual gatekeepers and tastemakers.

How overt was interest in the occult, magic, and Witchcraft among the British folk singers and folk-rockers? You mention Synathesia’s planned odes to Roman gods, Nick Drake being described as a “modern pagan,” a folk duo collaborating with Alex Sanders, and a member of Pentangle noting experiences with the “lighter side of the occult” in America. How much do you think the two scenes interacted and influenced the other?

A lot of it was anecdotal. Obviously the late 60s was a time when the counterculture and underground movements were pretty open to the rich world of mythology, fantasy, magick and so on. John Renbourn of Pentangle named the band after the shield design in the medieval Arthurian poem Gawain and the Green Knight and he told me he was reading Jessie Weston’s From Ritual To Romance around the same time. Slightly aside from folk-rock as such, the keyboardist Graham Bond was one of the most overt at the time, into a very Crowleyan vibe on albums like Holy Magic and We Put Our Magick On You, which are kind of funky stews of Dr John-style groove with magickal chants and spells invoked over the top. He killed himself in 1974, but not before, as I mention in the book, teaming up with a former member of Yorkshire folk group Mr Fox for an unrecorded project. Mr Fox – the duo of Bob and Carole Pegg – also had a witchy view of things, their track ‘Pendle’ was inspired by the Lancashire covens and they described some very uncanny experiences to me which you can read in the book. Carole made a great solo track called ‘A Witch’s Guide To The Underground’, which sounds kind of proto-Kate Bush. And then of course there was Jimmy Page installed at Crowley’s former lodgings in Scotland. And so it goes on. The Incredible String Band were probably the other really significant group here; a band who in their quest for a genuinely usable religion (which ended with Scientology), dabbled with the Tarot, Wicca, mystical Christianity and a variety of Eastern religions, all reflected in various ways in their albums of 1967–69.

But I don’t think there was much systematic infiltration of each other’s scenes, if you want to look at it like that. I think it was more about a lot of this stuff being in the air around the late 60s and available to any creative person who wanted to pick up on aspects of it. The Nick Drake thing was a quote from a former friend of his, and I’m not sure how reliable that really is – it’s certainly the only reference I’ve ever found to Drake being into ley lines, UFOs, etc, and it somehow doesn’t ring convincingly. But in other ways, his music is perhaps the profoundest expression of a genuinely other, possibly pagan state of mind, in the sense that he seems to be aiming at an organic sense of time and to escape the human realm that’s dominated by the clock, by responsibilities, by what he saw as the terror of romantic relationships. His tracks like ‘Way To Blue’, ‘Northern Sky’ and ‘River Man’, for me, are songs of deep longing to project into the being of a tree, or the sky, something other than the city life. Which all sounds very cliched hippyish when you say it, but the seriousness and the beauty of the way he does it force you to take these ideas seriously.

Finally I’d like to direct people to the chapter in Electric Eden on the great British outdoor festival, which goes into detail about the incredible origins of the Glastonbury Festival, which was originally designed along very clear geomantic and ‘Earth Magic’ lines (why do you think the main stage to this day is the ‘Pyramid Stage’? The original organisers  in 1971 were influenced by, and even friends of, the late great John Michell and his book The View Over Atlantis which was published shortly beforehand. It’s possible to view the prevalence of the outdoor festival in the UK as the point where paganism meets rock ‘n’ roll meets countercultural forces.

While your book has a generous wealth of information about the formation of Other Britain, of England’s various folk revivals, and how different artists interacted with these threads, there isn’t too much (comparatively) about the modern era past the mid-1970s (I’m assuming due to space considerations).  Are you planning a follow-up? If not, what resources would you recommend for those wanting to further explore the territory you’ve mapped?

There are plenty out there who disagree with me, but in my opinion on a musical level, the folk tradition as a well of inspiration had largely dried up by the mid-70s; although there were plenty who still drew from it, few were sonically innovative. That’s the cyclical thing – there are always going to be periods when something like folk is going to feel more useful to musicians and artists as a springboard, followed by a more fallow time (we happen to be in one of the more fertile periods right now, especially in the States).

Lessening space and, to a certain extent, deadline time were certainly factors in my stepping more lightly over the territory post-1975, but also, by then most of the story I’d wanted to tell had been enacted and many figures who remained making interesting work (Nic Jones, Spriguns, Peter Bellamy, Martin Carthy, John Tams and Home Service, etc) were by and large keeping something alive rather than massively innovating. I’m not sure a follow-up would do much more than fill in such gaps and I simply am not enthusiastic enough about the generic folk music of the 80s and 90s to really want to sit down and tell it in detail.

But – and this is kind of an exclusive – I AM beginning work on a follow-up; or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a companion. That is, I’m trying to write an alternative history of Britain’s film and television culture, looking at ways in which British moving pictures – cinema and domestic TV – have expressed the kind of tensions between progress and nostalgia, past and present, country and city, conservatism and radicalism, etc, which I explored through looking at music in Electric Eden. I do make a lot of passing references to various relevant films in the book – The Wicker Man, A Canterbury Tale, The Owl Service among them – and as I was writing Eden I began thinking there could be a whole book there – it’s an angle surprisingly seldom taken in studies of British film. So I’m shifting the focus from Electric Eden to… celluloid Albion! (That’s not the title, though…)

Otherwise, for further research. my blog at http://electriceden.net has a mass of links to sites musical and beyond, which all reflect my interests in these areas.

Owen Davies is Professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire and author of books that specialize in subjects relating to witchcraft and the practice of magic, including “Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History”“Witchcraft, Magic and Culture, 1736-1951″, and “Grimoires: A History of Magic Books”. His most recent work is part of Oxford University Press’ Very Short Introductions series, in which he tackles the subject of Paganism, both ancient and modern. I was lucky enough to conduct an interview with Davies about “Paganism: A Very Short Introduction,” in addition to asking some questions relating to his research into grimoires.

Owen Davies

Owen Davies

Oxford recently published “Paganism: A Very Short Introduction,” part of their growing “A Very Short Introduction” series. In it you summarize the current scholarly consensus on the subject, from pre-history to the Roman Empire, through the conversion of Europe, missionary interactions across the world with “pagans” in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, and finally to the contemporary Pagan revival. At just over 100 (small) pages, it’s an excellent starter on the subject. How did you come to be their “pagan” writer, and what was the process like for putting this together?

The idea for adding Paganism to the list of topics in the popular Very Short Introduction series came from the Oxford University Press team. Considering that the series already including books on most of the major religions, and covered ancient forms under Druids and Egyptian Myth, there was a real gap for a survey that covered the idea of Paganism from antiquity to the present. They probably approached Ronald Hutton to do it first! But came to me as someone with a broad-ranging expertise, and having recently covered the same period and similar territory for Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (2009). In terms of putting the book together it followed nicely on from researching Grimoires, and I was very keen to provide coverage on how and why, in the period of colonialism and Empire building, the label of ‘paganism’ was applied to the religions of peoples beyond Europe and the Middle East. I also wanted to draw upon all the latest archaeological research to revise older surveys of paganism in prehistoric and medieval Europe.

Things that struck me while reading “Paganism” was how long the process of converting Europe to Christianity took, how “unfinished” that process still is on a global scale, and how much continuity between our “pagan” past and our present there is. This is also touched on in your 2009 book “Grimoires,” where “pagan” books of magic had a profound effect on our world: From the rise of the printing press, to the formation of African diasporic and modern Pagan religions. Do we still, in our modern Western society, undervalue our pre-Christian roots?

This question raises a lot of very interesting issues about how we interpret the past, what versions of history or prehistory we choose to read, and how it is presented. It is certainly true that most people have only a hazy view of European pre-Christian religions and practices, and to be honest, when it comes to any period before the sixteenth century the evidence of popular religious notions and practices is decidedly sketchy and open to wide-ranging interpretation – which is what makes it such a contested but fascinating area of debate. At the same time, most people have only a vague understanding of the various manifestations of Christianity and their relationship to, and influence by, other contemporary religions during the early centuries of the Church.

There are still a lot of misconceptions about pre-Christian and indigenous religions. As you note, the achievements of pagan cultures had “a profound influence on the forging of modern society.” Yet many people, including some scholars, still parrot old stereotypes about what “paganism” is. Or if they do give credit, it seems rather backhanded, often repositioning great pagan philosophers and thinkers as proto-monotheists or even proto-atheists. Do you see this book as something of a corrective? Are you hopeful it will influence the larger narrative regarding the “p-word”?

Well, my job with the Very Short Introduction was primarily one of synthesis, and I make no claims to provide a profound new revision of the subject. I hope that it introduces some modern Pagans to issues and areas of debate, some uncomfortable, that they might not otherwise engage with regarding the meaning and use of paganism as a symbol. Likewise, I hope that it will provide those new to the topic with a clear and fair account of the relationship between and heritage of ancient and modern manifestations of Paganism in contemporary Europe and beyond. In short, that paganism is not just about pre-Christian religions – or even religion per se. It is, in part, an invention of negotiation between and subjugation of different cultures.

In “Paganism” and “Grimoires” you explore the fascination that some members of Germany’s Third Reich had with certain occult philosophies, but your books make the case that the Nazis actually worked diligently to suppress individual interest in magic, astrology, and the occult. Could you elaborate a bit on this point? Why did the Nazis see folk-magic and other belief systems as a threat to them?

There is a lot of misinformation about Nazism and occultism in its various forms. From the beginning, the Nazi regime was concerned by what it feared might be destabilising and non-conformist elements within German society. Freemasonry, religious sects, and, of course, any non-Nazi or non-Arian (as defined by the Nazis) political or social organisation were targeted. The various small groups of ritual magic practitioners that had formed and disbanded since the late nineteenth century came under this umbrella. Tied with this was a deep concern about the work of astrologers, whose predictions could undermine or challenge the propaganda machine. So it was primarily the middle-class world of occultism and esotericism that concerned the regime. Popular belief in magic was not much of a concern because it was in no way an organised threat to political control – the emphasis being on organised. Elements of folk magic were also interpreted as being survivals of an honourable Arian prehistoric past, rather than some foreign or corrupted intellectual thesis or religion. So while the astrologers and esotericists were rounded up, the cunning-folk carried on their business with apparently little interference.

I’d like to touch on the issue of pagan survivals a bit. In “Paganism” you run through the issue, noting the different figures who claimed to have found evidence of pre-Christian religion, often erroneously. That said, your work, and the work of scholars like Ronald Hutton have posited streams of transmission from our pagan past to modern times, like magical books. Could you explain, in your opinion, what elements modern Pagan religions can and do accurately claim as truly ancient?

Many elements of modern Paganism can lay claim to be truly ancient – as uncovered or interpreted by historians, archaeologists, folklorists and anthropologists. Such literary sources of actual and interpretive evidence were the inspiration for the creation of new religions in the modern era, just as the tenets and stories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were based on or influenced by pre-cursor texts and beliefs, or Rastafarianism was born from an amalgam of literary influences. While evidence for the unique oral transmission of pre-Christian knowledge down to the present, untouched by any literary linkage, is very difficult to prove, and often highly dubious or downright duplicitous, that is not to say that some knowledge of folk medicine and folk magic has not survived in this way. It certainly has in some parts of southern Europe, and some of these notions and rituals clearly have pre-Christian origins. But I have not seen any convincing evidence of the continuous oral transmission of pre-Christian worship surviving beyond the medieval period in Europe.

In “Grimoires” you posit a sort of “counter-Enlightenment” that ran alongside the 18th century Age of Enlightenment and spawned a modern Freemasonry movement steeped in ritual magic and alchemy. Would you say that a similar movement exists today? Is the “reenchantment” of the West, that some scholars write about, a new counter-Enlightenment? Are grimoires and ritual magic at odds with the values of the Enlightenment?

I often refer to the ‘so called’ Enlightenment, in that there was no intellectual big bang in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but more a continuous development of intellectual ideas about human existence and the natural world, albeit with obvious step changes. The Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution that is often portrayed as underpinning it, did not lead to a great conversion to atheism. Neither did it lead to a mass rejection of the place of magic in the world. The notion of the disenchantment of the world, which Weber identified in relation to Protestantism, could also be pushed back to the intellectual world of medieval science, where the likes of Roger Bacon were trying to disenchant magic by teasing apart the ‘natural’ from the ‘demonic’. There have been continual phases of reenchantment in intellectual thought since the seventeenth century, whether in the guise of mesmerism, odic force and spiritualism, or modern forms of ritual magic. Science itself can also be enchanted- after all it is often expressed in terms of an awe-struck BELIEF in its future potential to answer all the questions of existence, material and metaphysical.

Could you briefly touch on the role of grimoiries, and the people who used them, during the Early Modern witch hunts? It seems that grimoire collectors and users mostly escaped these persecutions, barring a few exceptions. Was there some sort of distinction made that saved them from the scrutiny of witch-hunters?

No real distinction was made; it just proves that it is impossible to truly suppress illicit writings. The Italian Inquisition tried and failed in its own back yard, and other Inquisitions were no more successful. The French authorities utterly failed to control the rise of popular (and demonic) grimoires in eighteenth-century France. The desire for literary magical knowledge was too great, even in societies where the majority of people were illiterate. The media is full of talk about the revolutionary power of web-based social networks to communicate illicitly in dictatorships today, but manuscript and print has proven equally effective over the centuries in subverting and undermining authority.

In your closing in “Paganism” you stress the relevance paganism, both ancient and modern, still has. That it “continues to excite.” Where do you see the modern Pagan movement, and the broader conceptions of what “paganism” is, going in the near future?

Absolutely no idea! The various modern Paganisms, and branches of magical practice, that have developed over the last century or so, were inspired by the creativity of a few people that went on to inspire a whole lot more. Will these established forms continue and expand? Or will new expressions of paganism come to the fore? Nationalist forms of Paganism will wane perhaps but not go away. I do see the grave environmental issues facing the planet being an increasingly important source of Pagan inspiration, and perhaps the well-spring of new developments in terms of what it means to be a Pagan in a global context.

Finally, now that “Paganism” is out, what’s next for you?

Following on from Paganism: A Very Short Introduction, I have written Magic: A Very Short Introduction, which is, in some respects, a companion publication. It will be out early next year, and looks at how different religions, cultures and scholarly disciplines have theorised about magic, and also how magic has and is practised. Again, I have tried to broaden out the discussion, with considerable attention to magic in Islam for example. So much to cover in so little space! I am also just finishing a major book on witchcraft in America from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, which will also be published by Oxford University Press.

In October, The Pagan Federation, an international organization that was founded in 1971 to provide information on Paganism and counter misconceptions, celebrates its 40th anniversary. What was originally started in Britain now has branches throughout the world, including Mexico, Russia, and the United States. While the Pagan Federation (PF) is a vibrant force in Europe and the UK, many Pagans in America might not know of their work or understand the importance of this organization, so I’ve turned to Council member Vivianne Crowley to help us understand the PF’s accomplishments and future challenges. Vivianne Crowley is author of “Wicca: A Comprehensive Guide to the Old Religion in the Modern World,” and a Jungian psychologist. She recently joined the faculty of Cherry Hill Seminary.

Vivianne Crowley

Vivianne Crowley

Why was The Pagan Federation necessary? How did it first come together?

Forty years ago there was little understanding of Paganism and many people thought ‘Pagan’ meant ‘Satanist’. The Pagan Federation was established to provide accurate information about Pagans and their practices and to ensure that Pagans were not discriminated against. The Pagan Federation also acted as a contact point for Pagans to find others. In pre-internet days, finding others of like mind wasn’t easy and we can easily forget how hard it was for people and how isolated many people felt from people of like mind.

At 40, what do you think The Pagan Federation’s greatest accomplishment has been? How successful has the PF been in fulfilling its mission to “support all Pagans to ensure they have the same rights as the followers of other beliefs and religions?”

There have been many successes in establishing Pagan ministry in healthcare settings, in prisons and other state institutions, but there is still a long way to go. The Pagan Federation is an international body, so the situation varies across the world. In some countries, the Pagan revival is only just beginning. Despite 40 years of the Pagan Federation, we still have problems with the tabloid press, though not quite as extreme as in previous decades. But nowadays, it’s not always Wiccans and Witches that are targeted. One of our UK tabloids seems to loathe Druids, which is strange in a UK context. Most British people love their Druids.

You joined the Pagan Federation as Secretary in 1988 (Ronald Hutton calls it a “refounding”). Could you talk a bit about the work you’ve done with the organization? What’s your current involvement?

I sit on the Council of the Pagan Federation, which is the body gives guidance and advise to the elected Committee. I’m involved mainly in talking about the work of the Pagan Federation to government bodies, universities and the media. I also represent the Pagan Federation at interfaith events. Unofficially, currently I’m also the President’s part-time PA and fielder of his media calls. My husband Chris is in the second year of his three year term as President.

In October the Pagan Federation is holding a celebration for its 40th anniversary, marking “the achievements of the past and seeking vision, energy and new inspiration for the challenges to come.” What challenges in the future do you feel are the most pressing?

One of the main challenges is what I call ‘mainstreaming’ Paganism – embedding Pagan thinking in the everyday life of wider society. Many of today’s ideas about sexual equality, freedom of lifestyle choices and environmentalism were once seen as Pagan and radical, but they can rapidly become the norm of generations. I see Pagans as people at the leading edge of where social and cultural thinking are going. Our challenge and task is to contribute to shaping the future of our societies so that humankind can survive and adapt to the planetary challenges ahead.

As a Pagan academic and psychologist, what do you feel are the most significant changes and advances made within the realm of modern Paganism in the past 40 years? How does The Pagan Federation fit within that?

The Pagan Federation’s role is to create an international community of like minded people who can support and encourage one another in the development of a Paganism that is vibrant and meaningful to our generations and those that are to come. While our roots are in ancient tradition, we are creating a spirituality for the future that can sustain people when the monotheisms wither and fall away, as inevitably they will. As a psychologist, I remind academic colleagues from other disciplines that monotheism is just a short blip in the history of human religious practice and one that we are now outgrowing. The challenge ahead is to create a meaningfully spirituality that helps create a sense of common purpose across diverse societies and ethnicities, and between nations.

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I’d like to thank Vivianne Crowley for taking time out of her busy schedule to do this interview. For more information on The Pagan Federation’s 40th anniversary celebration, a two-day event in London that will feature speakers like Ronald Hutton, Emma Restall-Orr, Graham Harvey, Philip Carr-Gomm, and Caitlin Matthews, check out the Pagan Federation website.