Column: On the Altar, in the Academy

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When Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon hit bookstores in 1999 something changed in British Pagan culture. It was immediate. Someone known to be friendly and spiritually sympathetic had put us on the academic map, and shown Pagans we have a rightful place in Britain’s cultural history. The book was eloquent and magisterial, linking Pagan ideas to literature, social justice, liberalism and the broad cultural avenue of western esotericism. The book drew young Pagans who were intellectually gifted to want to study Pagan-related subjects at universities for Masters and doctorate degrees.

Exeter University Lopes Hall [Photo Credit: Smalljim via Wikimedia]

Exeter University Lopes Hall [Photo Credit: Smalljim via Wikimedia]

And so a trend began here in the UK. Through the noughties, the Exeter University MA and PhD programmes in Western Esotericism were a key centre. Headed by Professor Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke and quietly under-written by the Theosophical Society, these programmes turned out over thirty scholars, many of whom are still working and publishing in the field. Bath Spa University ran a MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology, whose first professor was religious studies scholar Michael York. Other smaller programmes were dotted round the country. It seemed it was all going to carry on growing, particularly when the University of Amsterdam graduate programme headed by the luminary Wouter Hanegraff hired several British lecturers.

Now there’s a quiet crisis going on. The Exeter programme closed down with the death of Goodrick-Clarke in 2012, and there has been no replacement programme of its calibre for those taking an historical approach. I spoke to several scholars who asked for anonymity on where they saw the future of the Pagan and esoteric scholarship in the UK. These insider sources report that senior academics, who care deeply about Western esotericism including its pagan heritage, have held private meetings with more than one institution to find a home for a programme to replace Exeter. So far nothing has come to fruit.

It is no secret that there are plenty of first-tier scholars of international standing who could (and would) teach on such a programme. It is also apparent to everyone that the students are there. In fact, there is something of a tidal wave, particularly art history and intellectual history. Esotericism conferences hosted by Cambridge graduate students Daniel Zamani and Imma Ramos in 2012 (Charming Intentions) and 2014 (Visions of Enchantment) were oversubscribed in excess of five times what they expected. Both had submissions from senior scholars around the world seeking to participate.

London is an obvious place to situate a scholarly hub, because it is the most accessible common point in Britain  – all roads and trains lead to London. It is also handy for European centres of esoteric academic study like Amsterdam, Paris, Goteburg and Turin. Among my sources, the name of The Warburg Institute keeps coming up as the dream site. It is a place that is dear to the hearts of many who have never even been permitted inside its walls.

The Warburg is a research institute and library founded in 1944 by Aby Warburg, a Jewish scholar of intellectual esotericism. Based within the University of London, it was headed by Frances Yates, a scholar of occultism, for decades in the mid 20th century. She argued that ‘the occult’ was culturally significant in the Renaissance period. Subsequent leaders, however, distanced the place from the esoteric tradition, often using condemnation and even ridicule. But even so, it is still loved by British Pagans of an intellectual bent.

The Warburg Institute [Stephen McKay  via Wikimedia Commons]

The Warburg Institute [Stephen McKay via Wikimedia Commons]

The Warburg is home to world-class scholars of the artistic and intellectual traditions of the West, and it boasts the largest occult-intellectual library in the world. And between the lines, articles and books of esoteric scholarship have been produced there, including the key edition of the grimoire Picatrix, it is clear to observers that it is now a time of tremendous opportunity. Recently the Warburg has faced financial difficulties. Last year, it had to fight a hard battle for its independent existence. It also has a new director who can bring new vision and direction. There are good students who would pay the fees gladly. Those I spoke with are watching and waiting to see if the Warburg will see the gains to be made in re-embracing its esoteric heritage.

Of course all does not hang upon this, as other centres are holding strong. A history of astrology and astronomy Masters degree is offered at the University of Wales, and an MA in Cosmology of the Sacred is now at Kent. There are also individual scholars who are working solitary in departments of all disciplines from history to literature to anthropology. Within the British graduate school system, a student studies under a single professor and researches independently without attending courses. Therefore, a student simply needs to find a sympathetic professor with a compatible interest, and then work under their direction. Ronald Hutton supervises in this way, for example, in Bristol’s History department. Young scholars in this system can develop, even without ‘esoteric’ or ‘pagan’ programmes. But a university-based centre would make a difference for the academics of all ages and levels, as well as grad students. Centres are both a statement and a forum.

Intellectual Pagans in Britain are watching the situation closely. They have a sense that the time is so ripe that something has to happen soon. Since Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon, those who have an academic bent and have Pagan affinities have started taking their place, slowly but surely, in the world of letters, and it feels like the next chapter is about to unfold – everyone is curious about where, and when.