Interview with Margot Adler

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The beginning of this month saw the publication of the third revised and updated edition of one the classic books on modern Paganism “Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America” by journalist Margot Adler. Originally published in 1979, “Drawing Down the Moon” was the first extensive look at the growing modern Pagan community, and has since become a touchstone for modern Pagans, academics hoping to understand our communities, and those outside our faiths curious about our motivations and worldviews. I was lucky enough to conduct a short interview with Adler via e-mail about the new edition of the book and her current views on modern Paganism.

Margot Adler

This is the third revised and updated edition of your seminal book “Drawing Down the Moon”. Do you think there will come a point where you will no longer desire to update and revise the work? Is this a life-work or do you think you’ll come to a point where the book is “finished” and you won’t feel the need to do more revisions or updates.

When I first wrote Drawing Down the Moon, I had no idea that it would become the main history of Paganism in the United States, and continue to be regarded as such a resource. The first serious revision which was done in 1985 and was published in 1986 was necessary because the movement had changed so much due to the festival phenomenon, the emergence of new groups like the radical faeries Now, it seemed necessary to revise again because the movement has probably tripled or even quadrupled in size; some festivals are huge; the movement has mainstreamed and opened itself to families and children. Also, the internet has brought huge changes to the movement. There are probably more than 5000 Pagan websites and there are people who come to Paganism completely through the internet, for good and bad. I could go on and on. So, I have no idea if this will be the last update or not. What might happen is that in a few years I will put out a new resource guide as I did in 97, with no other changes.

Despite the explosion of Pagan publishing since 1979, your work is still pretty unique. Did you expect the book to remain so important to our communities (and to outsiders looking in), and do you think with the growth of modern Paganism that such a work like “Drawing Down” would even be possible in today’s communities?

As I said, I never expected the book to have, as it were, a movement behind it to fuel its success. I do think it would be possible to do a completely new book today, but it would take even more time than my original work took, and that was three years. And remember that was the 70’s. You could actually live on a $7500 advance with a part time job. That would be impossible today. So the book could be written today, but it would be much harder to survive and do it.

One area that receives a sizeable update is reconstructionism. How have your feelings changed about religions like Asatru? Do you have much contact with other reconstructionist faiths like the Celtic, Hellenic, and Kemetic reconstructionist communities? What role do you think such movements play in the larger modern Pagan context?

My feelings have changed about Northern European Paganism, or Heathenism, including Asatru. I started with a pretty negative view about it, stressing the groups that were racist and so forth. But I have really come to see the movement as incredibly diverse, and growing! I have met Heathens from all kinds of ethnic origins, and gay Heathens. Heathenism is incredibly complex, with different strains philosophies, and shamanic practices. As for Hellenic Paganism, remember that was my first love, and is still really the deep Paganism of my heart. If Wicca hadn’t been the only thing in my back yard in 1971 and 1972, I would have ended up in a Greco-Pagan group, if such had been available. I have had very limited encounters with Kemetic groups, only a few contacts, so far.

You have listed yourself as not only a Pagan, but as a Unitarian-Universalist. Your book “Drawing Down the Moon” is listed in the Unitarian Universalist Association Ministerial Fellowship Committee Reading List (and is in fact the only book on modern Paganism in that list), and Pagan and “Earth-Centered” spiritualities make up around 20% of the UUA. What role do you see congregational religion playing in modern Paganism? Is our involvement with bodies like the UUA a positive thing? Where do you see that relationship developing?

I became a Unitarian-Universalist through the back door as it were. I was put on the board of CUUPS, the Pagan UU organization, and then from there sort of joined a church, and even was a delegate a couple of times to their General Assembly. But I am not a church goer, I may go to my local UU church a couple times a year at most. I mainly associated myself with the organization to fight for the sixth source, to have earth-based spirituality included as an important part of Unitarian-Universalism, and that fight was won. But I am not an organization type. I think having a congregational part of Paganism is mostly very good, particularly for people in small communities where Paganism is still in the closet; it provides a respectable cover for feminist spirituality, men’s spirituality, rituals, etc.

Are there trends and movements within modern Paganism that you wish you could have added to the updated edition of “Drawing Down” but couldn’t due to time or space constraints?

I think I did pretty well on some of trends, particularly on the changes in festivals which I think are huge… Some festivals are now so large, and there is so much new music and ritual, that we are fragmenting a bit which is complex. Once everyone knew the same chants, that’s impossible now. If I had had more time I would have expanded some of the sections, included more traditions and visited more festivals and groups to get a sense of what is new. And the 300 groups, festivals and newsletters in my resource guide would have been more than 600.

What are your current frustrations with the modern Paganism movement? What one piece of constructive criticism would you give our communities today? Have your frustrations changed over the last 30 years or are many of them the same?

Actually, many of my frustrations with Paganism are the same as always. Isaac Bonewits once said that the basic principles of a polytheistic outlook make certain abuses less common, but it doesn’t mean they don’t happen. I still find egos, guruism, arbitrary rules, “by the book” attitudes in a religion that is supposed to be in contrast to the religions of the book, and so forth. On the other hand, Paganism now has real leaders, people who are doing real work to heal the planet, real nature sanctuaries, seminaries, charitable organizations, and that was much less true when I started out. Also, the large Pagan organizations – places like Circle, EarthSpirit, that is something no one anticipated when all of us thought entirely of circles, covens and groves. There are now people who come into Paganism through these organizations, that is a new difference.

Which voices within modern Paganism today do you feel are shining a light towards our future? Who are we not listening to that we should?

I really don’t know how to answer this. I think we are beginning to have real elders, people who have been in this movement for 40 years, and some of them have re
al wisdom to impart. Then there are young people, often the third generation and second generation Pagans are a really interesting phenomenon, and some of them are dynamite!!!! I also love that there are actually books that are deeper than mine at this point…I started out when there were few books around, except for Murray, Gardner, Graves, Lethbridge, Justine Glass, and a few others. “Triumph of the Moon” is utterly brilliant! I think we have to keep true to the anti-authoritarian, pluralistic spirit at the heart of contemporary Pagansim. It is truly an antidote to the authoritarian religions of our time.

Do you think you’ll ever write another book on Paganism, or do you feel that “Drawing Down” is your definitive statement and contribution?

I might well write a totally different kind of book on Paganism. But first I have to stop being a wage slave and get my 10th grader into and through college.

Since the first edition of “Drawing Down” academic works about(and by)Pagans have expanded considerably. Do you keep up much with current scholarship within Paganism? If so, what works have impressed you?

Triumph of the Moon by Hutton, some of Chas Clifton’s works, there are many works I like that are recent, including “Witching Culture” by Magliocco and “Coming to the Edge of the Circle,” by Bado-Fralick, in fact my bibliography is about double the size it was last time. But Triumph is my favorite book.

Where do you see yourself within the world of modern Paganism? How has that conception changed since 1979? As one of the most “famous” modern Pagans, what role do you envision for yourself in the years to come?

Heavens! I don’t have a clue! I hope to keep a bit of humor and humility, and tell people that this is a hugely important movement for changing the world and ourselves but that doesn’t mean we should take ourselves overly seriously. I think some of the things I emphasize in speeches, that the sacred is in the hear and now, that you don’t have to die to “get the good stuff,” that everyone’s ancestors way, way back were Pagan, and that every person in the U.S. had their ancient traditions torn from them, whether through slavery, colonialism or by assimilation, and that it is possible to combine ecstasy and rationality, body and mind, and that reality is like a jewel, more paths mean a richer deeper reality, those are the kinds of things I have always emphasized and continue to. Other than that, I am still a minstrel, singing, chanting, doing ritual and believing in the polytheistic vision, and being involved in less magic and more earth reverence.