Thursday, December 24, 2009

Margot Adler's "Drawing Down the Moon": Book Review

An insider's chronicle, a journalist's survey, and a participant's history of "witches, druids, goddess-worshippers and other pagans in America," this third edition's welcome. Myth-busting and myth-celebrating, Adler combines scrutiny with compassion, analysis with enthusiasm. Her depth of research matches a brisk yet contemplative style I found easy to read yet often profound in its conclusions.

Adler entered as a '60s activist bridging the social reforms she sought with a spiritual dimension that appealed to her even as a girl admiring the Greek deities while growing up in a secular Manhattan family. (Ummentioned here, but I found an interview that identified her as granddaughter of psychotherapist pioneer Albert Adler.) She explores in this feminine-based, earth-connected, non-salvific, and sexually freer array of practices and lore a fascinating variety of people who yearn for change, but who cannot find it within conventional intellectual, political, or religiously dominant frameworks. Pagan seekers built an alternative that doesn't proselytize or threaten. It's a lower-profile system of thought and action which awaits those who tend to find in freedom of divine choice what they have always sought but did not know how to name.

Diversity counts. "Most Neo-Pagans I know see polytheism not as competitive factions but as facets of a jewel, harmonious but differing." (28) It's bracing to watch a belief option much more open to cooperative rather than hierarchical decision-making coalesce. "Modern Wicca descends 'in spirit' from precisely those fragments of pre-Christian beliefs and practices nobody denies: myths, poetry, the classics, and folk customs." (83) Way back, all of our ancestors practiced a similarly rich combination.

This worldview may not, for Western Europeans, have survived after the Christian centuries, but practices did, if severed from their ancient roots. The flexibility of modern pagans lies in their good-natured humor about how they choose which myths to live by today. As one Sicilian witch tells Adler, his mother may have taught him what she knew, or made up. The point isn't fidelity to a venerable lineage, but to what works for people now to restore their ties to a broken past. "The important thing is that I'm 'working' with a fragment. I'm not accepting it, putting it in my pocket, burning a candle to it, or wearing it around my neck on a gold chain." (86)

Magic is often confused with the supernatural, but Adler finds many who argue for it as an alternative form of controlling reality, one that science may simply not yet be able to define or explain. Magic's a pragmatic, often far more rationally based approach to reclaim the natural bonds severed by monotheistic and technocratic groupthink. It's less romanticized or mystified than outsiders suppose; Adler models the witch's circle as opening a separate place to explore psychic growth for those disenchanted with commodified secularism or inculcated dogma. Emerging perspectives for pagans in this 3rd ed. show that the Mother Goddess turns now a model for the Craft rather than a figure that carries the same need to be worshipped as a male sky-god, with heavy hierarchical baggage. Archetypes and images evolve for today's neopagans that aren't necessarily "real."

An interview with an Irish-American witch, Sharon Devlin, from 1976 may be dated, but it's a wise choice to keep for it shows the creation of a combination of inherited and constructed frameworks upon which pagans build their ideology and ritual. Devlin concludes reminding us of the "people's spirituality" within the oppositional power summoned by witchcraft against the powers that seek to stop it. Similarly, Adler starts her involving chapter on feminism in the Craft with a quote from 1 Samuel 15:23: "For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft."

Drawing on her skills for public radio as a NPR veteran, Adler has visited a hundred pagan communities. Investigating the formation of a new religion, or array of such, the classifications of her subtitle themselves may defy easy categories. Late in the book, she considers whether "witch" can ever be reclaimed or if the word should be abandoned. Throughout the book, tension between those outside Wicca or the Craft or Neo-Paganism continues, due to mainstream religious misunderstanding and media sensationalism, but what in the 1979 or 1986 eds. seemed to be more common by those fearing satanic or magical dangers appears to have subsided by 2006 as tolerance begins to ease prejudice. Some readers may be intrigued to know that computer technicians play a prominent role among occupations pursuing neopaganism.

I wish Adler's thoroughly updated edition devoted more time to non-Unitarian interfaith efforts, for Jewish-Christian ties seemed barely mentioned, as did pagans as chaplains and soldiers, or Celtic Reconstruction. A few sections appeared to keep quoting people at great length to little effect, but her scope and range of six-hundred packed pages of information keeps this the standard source on the topic. Three appendices appear: international festivals, meetings, and websites; scholarly debate about occult and "new religious movements;" and a glimpse into rituals.

As Tom Wilson of the Church of All Worlds, a Heinlein-Maslow-Ayn Rand inspired, invented and revised faction muses, we can choose consciously what myths we choose to live by. This freedom, for exploring bolder and more daring, if comforting and surprising, realms where the material and spiritual realms mingle, permeates the utopian visions and difficult realities of many who speak to Adler in her narrative. These results will reliably inform, entertain, and guide anyone curious about the truth of witches, pagans, and nature-situated subcultures in our nation now. (Posted to Amazon US 12-8-09)

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