Monday, December 13, 2010
From Witch to Archaeology PhD
I was initiated as a Witch on the 19th of January 1985 and I'm doing my PhD Confirmation on the 19th of January 2011. I'm studying Tree Cult in the prehistoric Aegean, Cyprus and Israel (see the post below this one for details). One of the reasons I became interested in academia was the publication of Professor Ronald Hutton's book 'Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft' -- that and Robert Turcan's 'Cults of the Roman Empire' about Mystery Religions in the Roman world, both of which I read on the cusp of 1999/2000. Another factor in my becoming an academic was the Natrel email list run by Chas Clifton, (now called Pagan Studies) which alerted me to the fact that there was a vibrant international scholarly discussion going on about various aspects of Paganism and that in order to be part of it I had to "learn academia". I've been on that email list since 1999 and many times it has been the only thing maintaining my interest in modern Paganism which, since the late 90s, has seemed increaingly infiltrated by the New Age and consequently lite-weight. Initially I went back to university in 2004 in order to learn more about ancient Pagan religions and to see whether what academic experts in various ancient religions told me was the same as, or different to, what modern Pagan leaders claimed. You know: "Wicca goes back to the Neolithic", "the world used to be matriarchal", "casting the circle is an authentic ancient Pagan practice", "our lineage is derived directly from [fill in ancient celebrity here]"... that kind of thing. It didn't take long to discover that contemporary Paganism differed enormously from ancient pagan religions, both conceptually and structurally, and that's when I began to realise that contemporary Pagan leaders' claims were, in many cases wrong, deluded, or were a case of deliberate lying. This is one of the reasons why I like Hutton's work so much, as a professional historian he has done the historical leg-work that many Pagan insiders were simply unable (because they were not historians themselves) or unwilling (because it suited them to maintain a self-aggrandising, comforting and/or useful "history") to do and highlighted many instances of questionable historical claims that we now need to categorise as myth rather than fact. I guess this is why in some quarters of the practitioner spectrum, Hutton has become an object of hatred. This has raised its head again recently in the wake of the publication of a challenge to Hutton's 'Triumph of the Moon' called 'Trials of the Moon' by Ben Whitmore. While many of the anti-Hutton camp have lunged upon Whitmore's book, seeing it as a deserving slap to Hutton, as seen on the comments to a post on The Wild Hunt blog and on the Talking About Ritual Magic blog, academic researchers into Paganism have only just started to pay attention to it, as seen on The Witching Hour and Letters from Hardscrabble Creek. It is on the latter blog, in the response to the post about Peg Aloi's review of Whitmore's book, that comments about Hutton are actually getting quite nasty. (I could reply less nastily, but still snidely, that whatever the strengths and weaknesses of Whitmore's book prove to be, it doesn't really matter because one of the tricks of publicity is to attack a big target and attacking Hutton means that Whitmore can ride on Hutton's more famous coattails). Regarding some of the comments on Chas' blog, I'm still baffled as to why anyone would react so strongly toward Hutton's research. Have they even read his books? I look forward to an academic review of Whitmore's book, which I hear is in the making for Pomegranate: International Journal of Pagan Studies, where hopefully the reviewer can enlighten us all on the strengths and weaknesses of his challenge to Hutton (because they are likely to be qualified in the subjects they are discussing, not simply because they are an "evil academic" with the demise of Paganism as their goal). Many within academic Pagan Studies are actually Pagan themselves, which makes the accusation that they are somehow deluded conformists to the "academic machine" unlikely. The looming stoush between the anti- and pro-academic history camps that seems to be [re]generating as expressed on the above blogs will, I hope, provide another injection of fascinating dialogue into the continuing conversation that is the research into ancient and modern Paganism.