Saturday, December 26, 2009

Michael Strmiska's "Modern Paganism in World Cultures": Book Review

A topic widely misunderstood, here explained mostly by insiders who are scholars, this collects essays on European-American revivals, reinventions, and reimaginings of ethnically based, traditionally rooted, and nature-based polytheistic practices. Although aimed at the scholarly audience-- for all eight chapters come heavily documented and occasionally sound more like lectures than articles-- it's an accessible collection. The subject's a new one; before the 1960s counterculture, few had known of seekers who shared ambivalence to the dominant "Abrahamic" faiths and who, common with neo-pagans, found their inner dissatisfaction with common religions shared by a few dissenters and visionaries. The past couple of decades, despite the "satanic panic" of the late 80s & early 90s, a growing number have come out of what the U.S. military contributor, Stephanie Urquhart, calls "the broom closet."

Commonly jumbled with Wicca, neopagans interviewed here disdain this confusion. Many seek a Reconstructionist approach founded on what can be gleaned from the fragmented practices left behind after hundreds or thousands of years of Christian suppression of native faiths and more "natural" religions. The languages, the myths, the rituals all demand serious discipline. Those who follow this initiatory path may debate, as in Asatru, with those advocating an Eclectic approach-- more akin to Wicca in a multicultural, willfully varied, if less rigorously historic construction. Generally, those in this anthology appear more sober than some discordants featured in Margot Adler's "Drawing Down the Moon," (reviewed by me) which by the way would provide for the American background as with Ronald Hutton's "Triumph of the Moon" for British neopaganism recommended prior reading before this volume. The difficulty of reconciling "Folkish" with universalist philosophies presents an intriguing counterpart, as editor Michael Strmiska and Baldur A. Sigurvinsson note, to the never-ending arguments in Judaism over "who is a Jew" and about conversion.

Nordic paganism in Iceland and America provides contrasts between homogenous and diverse nations where neopagan adherents strive to connect with ancestral cultures while dealing with how to admit those outside a "native" lineage or ethnic ancestry. The contributors address this, especially with the Irish, English and Asatru contexts, openly and honestly. The difficulties with stereotyping by the media and the tension of associations with white extremists also gain investigation. Similarly, the continuing prejudice against pagans within the military and comparison and contrasts with Goth, neo-tribal, extremist, and sexual subcultures provide a topic that enriches one's understanding of a truly diverse America.

The majority of contributors balance well academic rigor with the personal attraction that interviews convey for those engaged in expanding and debating their "invented religions." "Celtic-Based spirituality" in the "Hereditary Druid Tradition" of the Hibernian Order of Druids serves for participant-observer Jenny Butler as an Irish case study. As an initiate she cannot divulge the higher levels of what's practiced-- this may slightly compromise the scope of her essay. Still, as with many contributors to this volume, we hear what otherwise would be inaccessible to the general audience which needs to listen to the opinions and facts here compiled. Butler diplomatically places claims of Owl Grove group in Co. Laois within larger contexts of the Celtic Revival and the spirited (if now, sadly, outmaneuvered) protests over the Tara-adjacent M3 motorway earlier this decade.

Despite some detours into lectern-types of recitation-- notably in entries on British Heathenry and sacred sites by anthropologist Jenny Blain, and on Ukrainian "Ridnovira" or Old Faith by environmental scholar Adrian Ivakhiv-- the chapters remain uniformly informative. Blain's employs theory; Ivakhiv's a densely encyclopedic style. Yet, as with Ivakhiv's conclusion which parallels the Ridno Vira within the reorientation of British Wicca after its own origin myths had been revamped by scholars, they too deserve a place for their own devotion to careful research. "Romuva" as Lithuanian paganism in its homeland and in America earns the most attention from Strmiska and Vilius Rudra Dundzila, nearly sixty pages. Yet, it wisely strives to integrate the voices of its practitioners with those of academics.

One shortcoming: the generic, stock maps are at so general a level, such as showing the 50 States or a silhouette of Iceland in relation to North America with no detail, that their presence confounded me. The countries of Europe are so tiny as to be nearly indecipherable, crushed into the corner so the U.S. can share a map page with them. Dotting a few large cities in the British Isles does not inform many readers needing to know, say, where Stonehenge might stand. Similarly, the photographs may be of sub-par quality, black-and-white snapshots lacking definition. Close-ups of ritual items can be fuzzy, a few practitioners in ritual dress seem more souvenirs for the writer than a helpful representation of practices themselves that beg, for the uninitiated, a visual explanation. One example: a 1908 postcard with the familiar, and now tainted, swastika as a good-luck symbol's shown, but on the same page, one wonders in vain (unless visiting the URL provided) what an "Algiz rune" looks like. For an expensive purchase, the quality and inconsistency of these informative elements disappoints by their paucity and simplicity.

Yet, this subject has no comparable equivalent. Turn here next to find out more, especially about the European adaptations after the less-ethnic Americans in Adler and the insular English in Hutton. It's not quite a "World"-encompassing treatment (and the editor addresses this and countless other questions in his excellent introduction) but it opens up the Baltic, Norse, and to a lesser extent Italian and English-based movements. I came here first for the Irish material, and it does summarize much valuable scholarship in a cogent treatment.

Sabrina Magliocco's survey of "stregheria" and its tense relationship with Wicca speaks well for the challenges and excitement felt by many within these faiths as they are conceived and created. "For many second-, third-, and fourth-generation Italian Americans, the word 'strega' and the traditions surrounding it became little more than whispers in family legends-- decontextualized, marginalized, silenced, but still powerful fodder for the imagination. They were, in short, ripe for revival." (75) Magliocco's direction opens the book; Urquhart's panorama closes it with a complimentary range into a fascinating presentation of many non-ethnically grounded, multicultural and democratic campaigns to earn respect for pagans in the service. (Posted to Amazon US 12-24-09)


Bo said...

Many thanks for this rich review!

I must say, 'Hereditary druid tradition' my arse! The air is clearly thin over in the hinterlands of delusion.

'The languages, the myths, the rituals all demand serious discipline.'---which almost no one practises, at least vis a vis the first. You will note, as an Irish-speaker, that most Irish words will be mispelled in neo-pagan and neo-druidic works, and that goes for Welsh too: especially common is doubling d's randomly---'Manawyddan' for 'Manawydan', 'Gwyddion' for 'Gwydion'---and the delightful 'Annwyn' for 'Annw(f)n'.

It makes me suspect that most pagans never read anything not written by other pagans.

I'm about to write something about Celtic recon for The Expvlsion ('Celtic Recon and why it is impossible').

Fionnchú said...

Looking forward to this rejoinder, Bo. I must add, in Butler's defense, that she "diplomatically places claims of Owl Grove" within the Revival & Recon contexts. It remains noteworthy that she alone of contributors tells a bit more of her own involvement yet also cannot divulge more because of it. She does not affirm the Owl G's HDT assertion, but she presents it perhaps akin to an "origin myth," as one who's worked within that group and who's investigating Irish Druidry for her UCC Ph.D. I suppose it's a tricky mix to pull off this blend of avowal and analysis; I sent her an e-mail after the Maynooth conference curious about finding out more about how scholar-insiders within neo-paganism do this, but have received no reply to date.

Other essays in the collection, such as that on Asatru, show how diligently its followers pursue scholarly study upon which to construct and invent their rituals and formulate their beliefs. As I wrote in my Maynooth piece last month, I wonder how similar or different such an array of academics here is from those clerics who might pursue a doctorate in theology? I think you'd like this volume-- even if the English Heathenry one's very anthropological by contrast; it lacks the personal touch that invigorates other selections here.