My first session on Sunday covered material that I was pretty familiar with, the Pew Forum’s Religion in Prisons survey, a groundbreaking work that gave some key data points concerning minority religions in prison that before we had only speculated on. You can read my initial analysis of that data, here, and Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum’s views on the survey, here. This special topics forum featured two researchers who worked on the Pew survey, and chaplains with direct experience either in prison chaplaincy, or working with minority religions.
Patrick McCollum’s initial comments seemed to set the tone for much of the panel, and the questions that followed, when he talked about the “dominant religion lens” that Christians view minority religions, particularly in prison. Many working prison chaplains had some very critical things to say about how the data might be skewed by the opinions of a predominantly conservative and Christian chaplaincy body. From what I’ve heard, Pew is very interested in doing a follow-up study on religion in prisons, something I welcome. The role of a Pagan, McCollum, in shaping this discussion shows just how vital we’ve become in this process.
After that forum, I attended the second Contemporary Pagan Studies panel entitled “Sex, Metaphor, and Sacrifice in Contemporary Paganism,” which featured very diverse papers from Jone Salomonsen on the religious writings of Oslo mass-murderer Anders Breivik, which fused Christian and Pagan elements, Jefferson Calico, on how the Heathen mead hall operates as a central metaphor for interaction between the gods and humanity, and most interesting, Jason Winslade’s “When Pan Met Babalon: Challenging Sex Roles at a Thelemic/Pagan Festival.”
“Concentrating on ritual performances around the bonfire at Babalon Rising, a yearly festival in Indiana whose attendees follow a mix of Paganism and Thelema, the teachings of Victorian magician Aleister Crowley, this paper will demonstrate how participants grapple with challenging sexual roles, manifested in their dances and their ritual play as deities from Crowley’s mythos. Chief among these is his version of the Pagan god Pan who, at Babalon Rising, engages with participants, intentionally pushing boundaries, and creating a setting for festival goers to more freely explore these issues. What results is a messy mix of progressive and regressive attitudes towards sexuality as a metaphor and a vehicle for transformation that potentially challenges essentialist notions of gender and sex in contemporary magickal practice.”
Winslade gave an engaging and interesting presentation, and while this panel seemed not a thematically cohesive as advertised, all the subjects covered were certainly important and fascinating.
The final Contemporary Pagan Studies session I attended was on Monday morning, and it was, by far, the most important and exciting of the weekend. Held as a joint session with the Indigenous Religious Traditions Group, “Contested Categories: Indigenous, Pagan, Authentic, and Legitimate” struck right at the heart of the some of the most vital questions modern Pagans face collectively. All the papers presented, from Koenraad Elst’s exploration of The Gathering of Elders in India, to Sabina Magliocco’s (author of “Witching Culture”) examination of authenticity within modern Paganism (read by Chas Clifton since Sabina couldn’t make it) pointed out the very real hurdles we’ll collectively face as we decide how we’ll define ourselves in the years to come. However, my two favorite paper presentations were Mary Hamner’s “Middle-Class Vodou: Spirit Possession and Marginality in the United States,” and Thad Horrell’s “Becoming Indigenous in a Reconstructed Ancestral Tradition.”
“This paper will investigate the contemporary Heathen project to create an indigenous identification accessible to White Americans, asking to what degree this project escapes the critiques leveled against other attempts to develop White indigenous identifications. Being rooted in European indigenousness rather than an appropriated American Indian indigenousness, does Heathenry escape the usual post/anti-colonial critiques commonly leveled at such projects? How are “indigenous Europeans” in the United States different from White “wannabe Indians?” What, if any, commonalities do they share? Are the differences sufficient to overcome the usual criticisms, to produce a more healthy and respectful cognitive relation between White Americans and American Indians? Or, do contemporary Heathen claims of indigenous identity continue to reify White racial conceptions of dominance over the racially-other Indian?”
I felt both of these papers were so compelling that I spoke with Mr. Horrell and Ms. Hamner after the session about presenting their research here at The Wild Hunt. Both seemed open to the idea, and I hope that this will not only expand the coverage of Contemporary Pagan Studies at the AAR Annual Meeting, but introduce productive dialog on issues that have provoked a lot of debate among modern Pagans. So stay tuned!
Once I get home later today I hope to start a longer rumination about the important conversations that happen between the panels and presentations, how the AAR Annual Meeting provides fertile soil for future collaboration and helps sustain Contemporary Pagan Studies. Conferences are often about who you meet, who you connect with, as much as the paper you present. As I said before, Pagan scholars are like a microcosm of the Pagan community as a whole: diverse thoughts, theories, and ideas debating, interacting, and spinning off into new directions. Interactions that could provide a road-map for the larger community to move forward. I feel lucky to have been a small part of these discussions, and to have attended these sessions.
I’d like to thank everyone who contributed to the campaign to send me to AAR, including the underwriters who joined us during that time: A Modern Druid, Assembly of the Sacred Wheel,Brotherhood of the Phoenix, Egregores, Ix Chel Wellness, Mill Creek Seminary, Solar Cross Temple,Stone City Pagan Sanctuary, Teo Bishop, The Summerlands, Urania’s Well, and Wiccanwoman. Thank you. You make this possible.