October 22, 2016

Pagan Scholarship from a Pagan Perspective

Ethan Doyle White, a PhD student in Anthropology of Religion at University College London, recently discussed his research into his 2015 book Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft. In this interview with the RSP, Doyle White states that he wrote this text ‘[…]to summarise the state of all previous research on Wicca […]’ and to fill an obvious gap in academic scholarship. While I applaud his attempt to write an initial definitive text, and certainly agree with him that there is a crucial lack of scholarship on Wicca and contemporary forms of Paganism, Doyle White posits a number of understandings that, as both a Pagan scholar and Pagan Minister, I must open for further discussion and interpretation.

In his opening response, Doyle White cites that ‘Wicca is the largest religion within contemporary Paganism’ citing unnamed ‘sociological, anthropological and ethnographic’ evidence. Doyle White’s statement reveals two distinct problematic issues. Firstly, Doyle White appears to be confusing the difference between Witchcraft and Wicca often presenting them as one in the same when they are quite different traditions.  Although Doyle White is correct in his historical connection between Jules Michelet, Margaret Murray, and Gerald Gardner in the foundation of Wicca in the early twentieth century, he appears to have missed a vital point. Gardner was the first to write down a dogma for the Wiccan tradition—a literal guide for adherents as to structure, form, ritual, and beliefs. A majority of contemporary Wiccans are Gardnerian Wiccans and follow (and in some cases modify) the templates Gardner constructed. High Priestess Phyllis Curott is a prominent contemporary Wiccan who has worked with the UN, the Parliament of World Religions, and Harvard’s Religious Pluralism Project. However, there are a number of contemporary Witchcraft traditions that pre-date Gardner such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn  (founded in 1888) and the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (who trace their historical roots to 1500 BCE). There are contemporary covens (or loosely-organised groups) of Witches both in the US and in the UK that do not self-identify as Wiccan; these Witches (both male and female) perform rituals and spellcasting either in solitary practice or within a coven or loosely-organised group. None of these traditions should be confused with or categorised with Wicca; they are various forms of Witchcraft.

Another complication with Doyle White’s statement that ‘Wicca is the largest religion within contemporary Paganism’ lies in the classification ‘Wicca’ and the opportunity to use it as a self-identifying label within available contemporary sociological data. Religious identifications that are alternative to the major world religions are relatively new to census questionnaires. However, there is a stark difference between the available options on religious identity in the 2012 US Census than there are in the 2011 UK Census. The US lists only four options: Wiccan, Pagan, Spiritualists, and Other; whereas the UK includes religious affiliations such as Wicca, Druid, Spiritualist, Heathen, Satanism, Witchcraft, New Age, Shamanism, Pagan, Pantheism, and the highly-popular Jedi Knight. What this implies is that the data from the US is skewed if adherents from a wide variety of traditions have only four limiting options to choose from; a practicing Witch can tick either ‘Wicca’ or ‘Pagan’ as a self-identifying religious affiliation. Whereas, in the United Kingdom much more data is available as to specific religious affiliation including a variety of new religious movements. Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States (2003) by Helen Berger, Evan Leach, and Leigh Shaffer, included six ‘Neo-Pagan’ movements, three of which predominated the survey: Wiccans, Pagans, and Goddess-worshippers, but also included Druids, Shamans, and the eclectic Unitarian Universalist Pagans. Ultimately, the US Census forces practitioners to choose between self-identifying as either Wiccan or Pagan obfuscating the data’s accuracy through the limitation of choices. In essence, the Wiccan community is, perhaps, much smaller than Doyle White asserts.

While accurately discussing the range of theological principles found in Wicca (from ditheism and polytheism to feminist monotheism), Doyle White includes atheists and agnostics into this theological array stating that this category includes those working with Jungian archetypes. My own doctoral research into the significance of Jung and post-Jungian theory to the development of the Western Goddess Movement contradicts Doyle White’s assessment. In fact, while the Jungian Goddess archetype can be traced back in the US to the 1920s and M Esther Harding (a devout student of Jung’s), evidence indicates that post-Jungian Jean Shinoda Bolen created a bridge from theory to religious praxis back in 1994 with her rebirth memoir Crossing to Avalon. Jung’s influence on Western faith traditions from the Catholic Charismatic movement to the development and advancement of Bolen’s post-Jungian Goddess Feminism, as a faith tradition which openly espouses a monotheaistic paradigm, stands in direct contradiction to Doyle White’s assertion that all post-Jungians are atheists or agnostics. While some post-Jungians remain purely analytical, a vast majority of contemporary post-Jungian Goddess adherents have crossed the bridge from analytics to praxis and consider themselves perhaps more ‘spiritual’ than ‘religious’.

When speaking of spellcasting, Doyle White states it is often used ‘in a negative sense’ preserving fictional caricatures of Witches dichotomously as evil or good. The perpetuation of these divergent and inaccurate stereotypes can only further hinder critical scholarship in this field. Phyllis Curott attempted to educate and change ‘the world’s prejudice’ in her 1998 memoir, Book of Shadows.

In closing, Doyle White calls for new terminology, preferring the Academic Study of Paganism, and I agree. Pagan Studies is problematic as a label and is often exclusionary, but I disagree with Doyle White when he states that we must stop accepting Pagan definitions from Pagans. Admittedly, definitions from lay adherents are often idealised and problematic, however, some of Doyle White’s statements exemplify the crucial need for viable Pagan scholarship from within the community that is analytically useful to scholars. Advancement of this scholarly pursuit requires the implementation of Academic Study of Paganism departments in which a multidisciplinary approach is beneficial, but must also include practicing Pagans. Ultimately Doyle White makes a good contribution to Pagan scholarship, but he exemplifies the need for Pagan academics and critical Pagan analysis.

References

Berger HA, Leach EA and Shaffer LS (2003) Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo Pagans in the United States. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Bolen, JS (1994) Crossing to Avalon: A Woman’s Midlife Pilgrimage. New York: Harper Collins.

Curott P (1998) Book of Shadows: A Modern Woman’s Journey into the Wisdom of Witchcraft and the Magic of the Goddess. New York: Broadway Books.

Harding ME (1971) Woman’s Mysteries: Ancient and Modern. Introduction by CG Jung. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

‘Iolana P (2016) Jung and Goddess: The Significance of Jungian and post-Jungian Theory to the Development of the Western Goddess Movement. An unpublished Thesis. University of Glasgow.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2004) ‘Focus on Religion’ Available at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/ethnicity/focus-on-religion/index.html

_____. (2012) Religion in England and Wales 2011. Available at:  http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/census/2011-census/key-statistics-for-local-authorities-in-england-and-wales/rpt-religion.html

U.S Census Bureau (2012) Statistical Abstract of the United States, Table 75.  Self-Described Religious Identification of Adult Population: 1990, 2001, and 2008. Available at:  http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0075.pdf

Doyle White E (2012) In Defence of Pagan Studies: A Response to Davidsen’s Critique. In: The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Vol 14, No 1 (5-21).

Discussion


1 reply to “Pagan Scholarship from a Pagan Perspective

  1. Ethan Doyle White

    I must thank Dr ‘Iolana for her thoughts on my interview and on my article “In Defense of Pagan Studies”, which was published in The Pomegranate back in 2012. As with Mr Mochridge’s previous response piece, however, I feel that there are a few areas where I do not quite recognise my work as it has been portrayed and where some misunderstanding has crept in. If I may, I would like to clear a few areas up.

    In particular I would contest the statement that “White [sic] appears to be confusing the difference between Witchcraft and Wicca often presenting them as one in the same when they are quite different traditions”. The convoluted etymology and contested meaning(s) of the term “Wicca” (and its relationship with “Witchcraft”) is something that I have conducted research into. That research is presented in my 2010 article in The Pomegranate, “The Meaning of ‘Wicca’: A Study in Etymology, History and Pagan Politics”, and then also described briefly in my recent book. As I demonstrate in this work and briefly commented upon in the podcast interview, there are currently two definitions of “Wicca” at play within the Wiccan, Pagan, and wider esoteric milieu. One is older and more expansive; it holds that all forms of Pagan Witchcraft that are recognisably part of the same broad magico-religious movement can be referred to as “Wicca”. The other is younger and more exclusionary; it holds that “Wicca” may only apply to those specific traditions of modern Pagan Witchcraft that are directly linked to Gerald Gardner through an initiatory lineage. This is somewhat akin to the way in which some Protestants and Catholics refuse to recognise the other as “Christian”, reserving that term purely for themselves. As explained in both my aforementioned article and book, I employ the former, more inclusive definition of “Wicca” for a variety of reasons. Conversely, Dr ‘Iolana is adhering to the latter, more exclusionary definition, hence her statement that “A majority of contemporary Wiccans are Gardnerian Wiccans” (this is only true if one accepts the definition of “Wicca” laid out by many practitioners of the Gardnerian tradition itself) and her view that I have overestimated the number of Wiccans globally. Thus, I do not think there to be any confusion in my work, but rather this is a reflection of the fact that I am operating from a different, more inclusive and expansive definition to that favoured by Dr ‘Iolana.

    Dr ’Iolana then offers the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC) as examples of non-Wiccan “contemporary Witchcraft traditions”. While I would certainly concur that these groups are not “Wiccan” (under any definition of the term) I would also argue that neither are they forms of “Witchcraft” (nor, in the case of the late 19th century Golden Dawn, are they particularly “contemporary”!). Rather, these are forms of ceremonial magic. While the boundaries of ceremonial magic and modern self-described “Witchcraft” do certainly blur and overlap within the wider esoteric (and specifically occultist) milieu, the two terms are not strictly synonymous. As far as I am aware, neither the Golden Dawn nor AMORC self-define as Witchcraft traditions, nor do they make use of the cultural and iconographic trappings of witchcraft as inherited from earlier manifestations of European culture. That being said, I do agree that there are forms of modern religious “Witchcraft” that are not Wiccan. One example is Luciferian Witchcraft, as manifested by groups such as the Cultus Sabbati. Another is Satanic Witchcraft, with groups like the Church of Satan utilising witchcraft imagery and actively using the term “Witch” as a self-designation. Many (although not all) of those who use the term “Traditional Witchcraft” are also not-Wiccan, as I explained briefly in my podcast interview and which I will expand upon in some of my forthcoming work.

    The statement regarding “Doyle White’s assertion that all post-Jungians are atheists or agnostics” is also something that I would like to comment on. This is not my actual view of the issue, and if I have given that impression through my words in the Podcast then I can only apologise. What I would argue is that some atheist and agnostic Wiccans view the deities as Jungian archetypes; moreover, some theistic Wiccans may also deem the deities to be Jungian archetypes. (I am of course far from being an expert in Jungian psychology and its relationship to esotericism, and on this matter must for obvious reasons acknowledge Dr ‘Iolana’s significant advantage over me in this area! I look forward to reading her work on this subject in greater depth).

    A further area where I would just like to clarify something is in the statement that “I disagree with Doyle White when he states that we must stop accepting Pagan definitions from Pagans.” While I don’t think this to be a significant misunderstanding of my position, I would just like to clarify this point a little so that readers do not misunderstand me. I believe that Pagan scholars of modern Paganism are perfectly capable of producing fantastic, critically astute scholarship on the traditions that they practice. Accordingly, I think that Pagan scholars of modern Paganism can produce definitions of Paganism that are very useful for academic purposes. However – as I argue in my article on “Theoretical, Terminological, and Taxonomic Trouble in the Academic Study of Contemporary Paganism: A Case for Reform” – what concerns me is the direct import of definitions of “Paganism” from within the Pagan community without critical assessment. For instance, there are many definitions of “Paganism” circulating within the Pagan community that would actually exclude certain new religious movements which (from a more analytic perspective) are clearly part and parcel of the wider Pagan milieu.

    (Also – on a minor side note, I’m not a doctoral candidate in the anthropology of religion; my PhD research is of a historical and archaeological nature, as opposed to being rooted in social or cultural anthropology).

    These issues of potential disagreement aside, I would again like to thank Dr ‘Iolana for taking the time to examine some of my work and for offering her thoughts upon it. Dialogue and discussion such as this can only be a good thing!

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