Challenges in the Study of Gender and Contemporary Occultism

Having been unable to attend the 2018 EASR conference at Bern and catch up with friends and colleagues, I was delighted to be offered this opportunity to listen to Manon Hedenborg White and Sammy Bishop talk about gender issues in contemporary occultism – a subject I’m most interested in.

Both Manon and I are part of a young cohort of scholars exploring new avenues of research in Twentieth Century and contemporary Western Esotericism. Specifically, we are both interested in highlighting gender as an aspect of occult discourse and practice. Manon’s recent and current work analyzes constructions of femininity and feminine sexuality in modern occultism, with a specific focus on Thelema and its development in the Twentieth and Twenty-First centuries, while my own contributions have centered on attitudes towards gender among British Wiccans, Pagans, and Goddess feminists between the late 1940s and early 1990s.

I chose to comment and elaborate on a few of the issues highlighted by Manon during the interview. First, she observes that men slightly outnumber women in contemporary Thelemic organizations such as the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), and she feels that the intersection with feminism, as seen in Wiccan-derived contemporary Paganism, hasn’t been as strong in Thelemic groups, for various reasons. This, in fact, makes her postdoctoral project, which centers on Female Authority and Agency in Thelema, all the more important. As noted recently by Jay Johnston, “the assumption that magicians are only men and witches are only women is [still] disappointingly common” in contemporary Western esotericism (416). Yet not all contemporary Pagan denominations feature a higher proportion of female adherents. In most groups that practice Heathenry, which focuses on the veneration of Germanic and Scandinavian deities, male adherents outnumber their female counterparts. According to Stefanie von Schnurbein, most groups are composed of 60 to 70 percent men (216). In the American context, as noted by Johnston, the relatively-high proportion of army veterans in Asatru “has engendered very active masculine roles” that harken back to an imagined Viking past of “warrior men and hearth-tending women” (416-417).

A further point I would like to highlight here is that – as Manon rightly observes – “there really is a lack in solid quantitative research on contemporary esotericism overall“. One of the first attempts to do so, coincidently, was by a practitioner – Chris Bray, the proprietor of a Leeds-based occult bookshop known as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In 1989 Bray undertook ‘The Occult Census’ in an attempt to compile “the first real analysis of the sociological importance of Occultism in the history of the world.”  Some of the data he collected was also utilized by Michael York in his sociological study of the British New Age, Pagan, and occult scene during the late 1980s and early 1990s, published in 1995 as The Emerging Network (133-135, 142-144, 182-197, 210-211). One point I would like to add to this is that it seems that Contemporary Paganism as a whole is certainly receiving greater attention in terms of quantitative research than that received by Thelemite and OTO groups, for instance. Helen Berger’s The Pagan Census (PC) and The Pagan Census Revisited (PCR) are representative in this regard. Berger’s work, which centered on Pagans in North America, has, in fact, inspired comparative surveys that utilize its template to varying degrees in order explore different Pagan localities and compare the data with the PCR. The 2016 EASR conference in Helsinki included a session titled ‘Differences and Similarities in Contemporary Paganisms across Diverse Locales: Interpreting Census and Survey Data’, in which two of the presentations utilized Berger’s survey template in order to compare between Paganism in North America, Israel, and the Czech Republic.   

Finally, a word on the secretive aspect of occult groups and our position as scholars of contemporary Western Esotericism. Manon, for instance, in her PhD dissertation and subsequent publications, chose not to discuss OTO rituals that are secretive and open to initiates only, and alludes to past researchers of contemporary occult groups who have undergone initiation into groups and then described the rituals themselves. Manon felt this could be “ethically quite troublesome” and was interested in other aspects of the Thelemic traditions to begin with. She also describes having to separate between conversations and rituals you are invited into as a scholar and those the scholar is invited into rather as a friend or as “someone who is perceived as a kindred spirit.”

In my study of the Israeli Pagan community, I had to deal with similar dilemmas, coupled with the fact that a few vocal members of the local Pagan community objected to my wish to publish the fruits of my research, fearing it will cause this miniature and reclusive spiritual community to ‘pop-up’ on the government’s radar and incur violence from Ultra-Orthodox groups anxious to safeguard Israel’s existence as a (Orthodox) Jewish state. Most members of the local Pagan community were supportive of my publications, which were written almost entirely in the form of English-language peer-review – and paywall-protected – journals that are virtually unread by the non-academic Israeli public. Israeli Pagans’ fear of publicity has – and still is – a fact I felt compelled to factor in as I repeatedly refused to speak about them when prodded occasionally to do so by both sensationalist and established local television shows and newspapers.

Researching initiatory-based groups as an outsider has sometimes hindered my research into British Wiccans’ reaction to second-wave feminism as well. Most of my oral history interviewees were happy to cooperate once I was able to provide assurances that I was ‘a proper person’, and Pagan libraries and archives in Glastonbury and Boscastle were opened to me in their entirety, while custodians of the papers of a deceased Wiccan luminary felt compelled to ‘protect the mysteries’ and withhold my access to the collection. It did not matter, of course, that I was hardly interested in obtaining information regarding the secret names of Wiccan deities but actually prized potential correspondences between said Wiccan and figures such as Starhawk or Mary Daly. In fact, issues of secrecy were not restricted to Western Esotericism as I searched for research materials in feminist archives during the course of my PhD. As a male scholar, was I allowed to read through copies of ‘women-only’ newsletters complied during the 1970s and 1980s? Were these publications already part of history or not? What to do when a certain publication was designated as ‘available to women scholars only’ in one feminist archive but was unrestricted in another? The answers to these questions are not necessarily set in stone, and as a historian who has been trained to study the writing of individuals who are ‘safely gone’ but chose instead to make the 1970s-1980s era his ‘bread & butter’, I’ll continue to have my hand full in dealing with such dilemmas, for sure.     


Johnston, Jay, “A Deliciously Troubling Duo: Gender and Esotericism,” in Contemporary Eesotericism, eds. Egil Asprem and Kenneth Granholm (Sheffield: Equinox, 2013), 410-425.

Bray, Chris, The Occult Census: 1989 – Statistical Analysis & Results (Leeds: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Press).

von Schnurbein, Stefanie. Norse Revival: Transformations of Germanic Neopaganism (Leiden: Brill, 2016).   

York, Michael, The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-Pagan Movements (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995).

World Religions in Academia and the Loci of Tradition in Irish Paganism(s)

In her interview with the Religious Studies Project, Dr. Jenny Butler spoke with Christopher Cotter about the specificities of the object of her doctoral research at University College Cork (2012), contemporary Irish Paganism, and about the field of Pagan studies in the context of Irish academia. Butler’s research encompasses very diverse aspects of contemporary Paganism in general, from Wicca to Pagan Witchcraft, through Heathenism and Druidry, without forgetting to pay attention to solitary practitioners who revolve around groups like Wiccan covens and Druidic groves. Nevertheless, what started as an overview of Butler’s work in Ireland quickly turned into a much-needed critique of the context surrounding academia and religious studies. Her own ethnographic research raises questions about important categories and paradigms in religious studies today.

The first element of interest in Butler’s work is her use of “Paganism”, a somewhat monolithic term, to describe the Pagan movement. It is most interesting to see how her use of the term “Paganism” instead of “Paganisms” pertains to the current hesitation in academia to talk about “Christianisms,” for example, as an array of different traditions included in Christianity. Some scholars of Pagan studies prefer the use of “Paganisms,” easily recognizing that it is more appropriate to talk about it in a way that reflects its inner diversity and lack of cohesion in regards to beliefs, practices and ethics. We can only deduct that Butler’s move to speak of her object of study in the singular form must be due in part to the fact that the study of Pagans and Paganism in Ireland is still nascent. For that reason, it would probably have been harder for her to have her object recognized by the academic institution if she didn’t comply with the same convention that usually applies to the major religious traditions of this world, i.e. world religions. Does it have anything to do with the possibility that a confessional approach of religion still lingers within religious studies in the Republic of Ireland? Compared to the context of Butler’s research, it seems that American and Canadian scholars of religion show much less hesitation to talk about “Christianisms” or “Hinduisms,” for example, as a series of several sub-traditions, rather than as uniform religions. Butler specifies that this decision derives from her ethnographic methods of research, and, in that sense, that her use of the term “Paganism” as a whole stems from her fieldwork. In this manner, she gracefully avoids some of the methodological and theoretical problems that would come out of an ethnocentered perception of religion.

In light of this, one can wonder how expeditious is the common assumption that most Pagans, or at least a majority of them are well read (Davy, 2007). First, let’s not forget that it is not unusual at all that members or adepts of a religion, be it new or old, take upon themselves to be well aware of the literature, academic or confessional, surrounding their religion. In my experience, Pagans are certainly well read in particular areas, like mythology, folklore and sometimes history, but they seem much less informed when the time comes to compare “world religions” to their own religiosities or to compare their own religious categories to those produced and accepted in academic circles in religious studies, anthropology, and history, among others. This is not to say that Pagans are particularly less well-read than individuals who belong to other institutionalized or formal religious traditions. Many adepts of Neo-Druidry do indeed dig deep into historical and archaeological material to reconstruct parts of their worldviews, practices, and social organisations. It is also possible that for a great number of individuals who identify themselves against religions, like some atheists for example, being informed by scholarly works might be an important aspect of their “non-religion.”

As far as I am concerned, this idea that Pagans are more informed about scholarly works in religious studies is questionable only because most Pagans, as Butler indicates, do not interrogate the origins of their religiosities beyond their romanticized interpretation of geographical locations and historical or mythological influences. In fact, one can wonder why it has never been articulated anywhere so far within Pagan studies that Wicca, the only “religion” stemming out of Britain (Hutton, 1999), is rooted in elements often associated with Irish Celtic myths or figures. What about the veneration of deities such as the popular Ceridwen and Cernunnos? What changes did those figures go through by leaving English soil, going around the Western world through the popularization of Wicca, contemporary Paganism, New Age, and Goddess spiritualities, before coming back to Ireland, decades later? Is it just that Pagan studies in Ireland haven’t made the connection yet? Probably not. Is it that these figures did not undergo any kind of transformation? That would, of course, be quite surprising. Or, maybe is it that these distinctions do not matter for Pagans and scholars who study them? Paganism, being a religion without dogma, without a “proper” institution standardizing discourse and practice, in the face of globalization, might not have what it takes to conceive these divergences as significant issues to deal with.

In my eye, the most interesting aspect of Butler’s study is that it shows just how locations and spiritual nexuses in Ireland are at the heart of Irish Pagan religiosities. Certainly akin to what happens in Britain at Stonehenge or Glastonbury, this phenomenon invokes issues of authenticity and “nativeness.” These locations point to a long gone past, which then comprised very different worldviews from those at play today that have inevitably been marked by what Butler qualifies as a “Christian veneer.” This brings up and interrogates the basic distinction between Christianity and paganism[1], or rather the issue of identification of paganism by agents of Christianity. Would a certain paganism occurring today not be paganism anymore after being marked by centuries of Christian proselytism? This forces researchers to work outside of these ever-reproduced categories to focus on more current issues, giving more space to collective and individual stories rather than written texts that prescribe modes of practice.

In the last couple of years, scholarship in Pagan studies has begun to slow down. The main source cited by Butler, The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, is struggling more and more as the years go by to find new approaches to Paganisms and Earth-centered or nature-based religions that would give them some sort of undisputable recognition within universities. In fact, it seems that as soon as students and scholars of Pagan Studies step out of the United States or Britain (mostly), they still face an ever-present normative push that won’t accept Paganisms as legitimate religious objects of study or Pagan studies as a legitimate field of study. We can only hope that Butler’s work, quite unique in itself, can revive this pull towards understanding the originality and specificities of contemporary Paganism as it spreads in different ways throughout the globe.


Davy, B. J. (2007). Introduction to Pagan Studies. New York/Toronto: Altamira Press.

Hutton, R. (1999). The Triumph of the Moon. A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. New York: Oxford University Press.

York, M. (2005). Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion. New York: NYU Press.

[1] The term “paganism” refers to what Michael York calls a spontaneous religiosity linked to the land (2005), found in Native and aboriginal cultures for example, as opposed to “Paganism”, capitalized to refer to the contemporary revival of pre-Christian mythologies.

Religion, threskeia (θρησκεία) and the Return of the Hellenes: On Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion

Ever since the publication of Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion (1962), various scholars have engaged themselves with the issue of religion not being “a universally applicable first-order concept that matches a native discursive field in every culture across time and throughout history” (Nongbri 2013, p. 158). Nongbri’s approach to this issue is influenced by the work of scholars like Talal Asad, Jonathan Z. Smith, Russell McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzerald, Tomoko Masuzawa, and David Chidester to name a few. However, his approach differs, from say Fitzgerald’s, in that he does not dismiss the term altogether. Instead, for Nongbri, the realization that religion is a modern concept with a specific history and that all our concepts are virtually anachronistic when we apply them to antiquity, allows us to use the term ‘religion’ in a more creative way. For example, by drawing on the work of the church historian Eusebius (4th century CE), Nongbri argues that religion is not “the most useful tool for trying to describe ancient practices” since Eusebius was not dividing the world up into different religions.

Writing for an English speaking audience, Nongbri justifiably dedicates most of his work on the Latin term religio from which derives the modern western concept of religion. However, the Greek term threskeia (that one would conventionally translate into English as religion) remains a marginal term both in the field of religious studies and in the discourse on the concept of religion. Nongbri dedicates little space on this term in his work (Nongbri 2013, pp. 34-8), but manages to show its different meanings with references ranging from Herodotus in the 5th century BCE to Photius in the 8th century CE, while he stresses the absence of a detailed study of how the term was used in the Byzantine era. The term threskeia still is the standard term that Greek-speaking people use when referring to religion. The problem of understanding how this particular term was used both in antiquity and during early Christianity within the Greek speaking world is simultaneously at the root of the problems that stem from the very fact that ancient Greek threskeia (arhaia Helleneke threskeia) remains the standard modern Greek terminology employed when referring to ancient Greek religion.

Modern Greeks Re-Enacting Ancient Practices

Modern Greeks Re-Enacting Ancient Practices

A peculiar case that touches upon – and could well be studied with the help of – Nongbri’s work is a relatively new movement in Greece known as The Return of the Hellenes. As Matthew Brunwasser wrote last June on the BBC official webpage, every 21st of June (summer solstice) the members of this movement participate in their annual festival of the Prometheia, a celebration of the Greek Titan Prometheus (see picture below). What is interesting, however, is the statement given to Brunwasser by the founder of the Hellenes movement, the philosophy professor Tryphon Olympios: “They [Orthodox church officials/priests] have understood that we are not dangerous and we are not pagans and Satanists… We are peaceful people that come with ideas that are useful for society”. These religious (theskeutikes) practices that, according to the members of this movement, go “back to the roots” and generate the feeling of “continuation through the millennia” virtually allow people to “identify with something in the past – where they come from – so as to know where they are going”.




I find such phraseology extremely interesting and at the same time deeply problematic. One could argue that, like Eusebius, the members of the Hellenes movement do not adhere to a religious but rather to a different classification of the world by seeing the ancient Greek practices (including but not confined to the threskeutikes) as a means of identity formation that link the modern to the ancient Greeks. Herodotus in the 5th century BCE, in describing the Greek nation, spoke of “the common blood, the common language and the common sanctuaries and sacrifices” (Histories 8.144.2). Even though Herodotus does not use the word threskeia in this passage he nevertheless sees the world through the lens of different elements constitutive of a specific group, in this case the Greeks. Likewise, the Hellenes movement acknowledges the importance of both sanctuaries and sacrifices as a constitutive element that links them to the ancient Greeks in, as it were, a Herodotian way. It comes as no surprise, as Brunwasser informs us, that the followers of the movement include “New Age types who revere ancient traditions, leftists who resent the power of the Orthodox Church, and Greek nationalists who see Christianity as having destroyed everything that was truly Greek” (emphasis added).

Nongbri’s work, as I see it, offers a very valuable tool not only in approaching and interpreting the ancient usage of terms such as religio and threskeia and their respective history but also how those ambiguous terms are adopted and used by modern people who long for those ancient practices that scholars label “religious” in order to establish claims that touch upon different matters: from regional politics to ethnicity and from nationalism to anarchism to mention just a few. As with the term religion, threskeia does not so much need a definition but rather an examination of the various connotations that the term employs when in the hands of different people with different agendas. As Russell McCutcheon put it in another podcast published in the Religious Studies Project some time ago, “I am really not interested in what religion is or isn’t or even if there is such a thing that pairs up to that word; instead it’s a word I am using defined in this or that way that allows me to do this or that with the world; that allows me to talk about this versus that”.

I think that Before Religion, which draws heavily on McCutcheon’s work as Nongbri himself acknowledges in his interview, can contribute to the study of those identity formation and classificatory systems employed by people that are today conventionally called neo-pagans. The very fact that the Hellenes and their umbrella group known as the Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes are “campaigning to get their form of ancient worship classed as an “ethnic religion [threskeia]” of Greece” shows in the most vivid way that to define the term threskeia (and religion alike in other places of the world) offers less than the more promising study of the ideologies that accompany the term in its different contexts, both in antiquity and in the modern world.