Thursday, December 31, 2009

Jennifer Hunter's "Rites of Pleasure": Book Review.

Researching academic studies on neo-paganism, the title naturally intrigued me, so I checked this out. It's not scholarly but popular in its direction, although endnotes and sources are dutifully cited. A general survey interspersed with 22 accounts from (all but one) American "Witches, Wiccans, and NeoPagans," the result's certainly not nearly as sober or somber as other introductions to this charged and potent topic.

The subtitle's "Sexuality in Wicca and NeoPaganism." But it's not an anthropological treatise of a little-known subculture. It's meant to reassure those already inside (or peeking into) the emerging tradition. It's written in a very breezy-- if for me rather nudge-nudge, wink-wink tone of "we've all been there, we're all in this together" against the system-- tone of solidarity. Understandably given the caution that kept me, reading this at my workplace, to conceal the cover. The supportive, here rather coy, there very explicit style of the presentation may not surprise, on the other hand, the intended audience for this brisk work. I sympathize with the difficulties faced by those popularizing not only marriage and "fluid-bonded" relationships but "condom compacts," a "play party," polyamory and similarly if even more daringly open-minded sexual expressions among those long feeling persecuted for their right to pursue pleasure in life-affirming, yet dramatically subversive or imaginative new-old ways. Hunter's fair-- more than earlier reviewers on Amazon US may have given her credit for-- in appealing to everybody on the continuum from celibates to sex workers; she keeps in mind risks and challenges for all involved.

The author of two books previously on Wicca, Hunter reminds us how rare a religion which encourages open sexuality for all remains. As a researcher, that brought me to read this. That novelty accounts for interest many may have in this subject. Symbolism, relationships, rituals, magic, body-positive thinking, ethics and safety, gender issues, poly & queer paganism, and rites of passage follow a quick history of sacred sex. She tends towards works by pagans themselves but includes scholarship from primarily feminist and sexuality authorities also. Websites, a glossary, and the often frank comments from the informants themselves help orient the reader.

As I've mentioned, the book, despite its rapid pace, tends towards a compendium for practitioners and, it seems, experienced pagans rather than newcomers or academics. I think that the sources for what remains historically an elusive subject to account for solidly-- due to the prejudice and bias heaped upon it for millennia-- could have been stronger, but in time, a more subdued, less giddy text may follow. Hunter writes for her fellow circle, and this is a first start towards a needed conversation and elucidation of sacred sex past and especially present in a nature-based, magically and spiritually flexible context. That being said, the readership for it may be narrower or broader than I'd expected-- but in either case more than the esoteric sociological monograph I'd figured this for unseen, to be sure. (Posted to Amazon US 11-27-09)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bob Curran's "A Bewitched Land: Ireland's Witches": Book Review

Ireland had few witch trials, no hangings, and two burnings that we can account for. Compared to England, Scotland, and the Continent, not many. Yet, Irish tradition tells of those rumored to be witches and sorcerers.

Curran, an educational psychologist and Ulster-based folklorist, has written many books on the uncanny in Irish lore. He tells vividly the most famous Irish cases of where witch beliefs overlapped with tales of demons and especially fairy dealings. I wish this book cited more scholarship; for instance, neither Joan Hoff & Marion Yeates' "The Cooper's Wife is Missing" (reviewed by me on this blog and Amazon US) and Angela Bourke's "The Trials of Bridget Cleary" are mentioned as recent and comprehensive studies regarding the sensationalized "Clonmel witch burning" of 1895.

Still, it's handy to have the accounts compiled. Curran relates events briskly, but with a grounding in folkloric, historical, political, and ecclesiastical tensions that appear as always to collide whenever an Irish scholar investigates. Alice Kyteler escaped death in her raucous 1324 show-trial in Kilkenny but her servant Petronilla of Meath did not, after being tortured, flogged, and burned. We don't know the ultimate fate of Florence Newton of Youghal in Cork, in 1661, but the stories of strange diabolically attributed goings on sound like a B-movie today. Her interrogator, the spendidly named if rather shady Alexander Greatrakes, credited himself not only with first-hand expertise on how to deal with witches, but with the touch to cure the "King's Evil" of scrofula.

Islandmagee in East Antrim long has been an eerie enclave of Presbyterian severity; the supposed coven uncovered there in 1711 recalls intriguingly concurrent goings-on in Salem, Massachusetts. Bridget Cleary's sad case gains verve and poignancy as retold in Curran's quickly paced yet sympathetic style. He then shifts to wise women, who often had to adapt for survival in difficult times, perhaps left alone as elders to survive in harsh village environments, as counter-forces to Catholic suppression or Protestant surveillance. That is, they may have cultivated as a defense mechanism a fearsome folk presence, so as to exact respect from their neighbors, who then kept their distance-- unless perhaps needing a potion or charm. This sinister aura then reinforced their own alleged powers in local tradition.

Eddie Lenihan of Clare has written well of the connections of those, especially Biddy Early, who operated in this fashion. Curran describes the scraps that have come down in local history about what she supposedly did. Her mysterious blue bottle through which she could foretell the future was thrown into a lake by the priest after being bequeathed to him on her deathbed, but its legend lives on. (For more on fairies, see my Amazon US/ blog review of "Meeting the Other Crowd," a terrifyingly convincing study of their presence even within modern times, as related by Lenihan.)

Moll Anthony may not share Biddy's renown, but she represents in Carlow another wise woman associated with witchcraft, one of the last, in the 19th c, of an antiquated number otherwise lost to history. The Irish ghost writer J. Sheridan LeFanu in "Sir Dominick's Bargain" adapted the Faustian bargain made, and remade, and extended ingeniously, by Anglican cleric Alexander Colville at Galgorm castle near Ballymena in Antrim. Colville managed to outwit the devil around the 1630s and '40s. The outcome of the pact I leave you to find out for yourself.

The book concludes with a few tales of others claiming powers. Gerald Fitzgerald "the Wizard Earl" after his 1583 death against the English haunted Lough Gur; "the Black Hag of Shanagolden" of the Earl's clan was seen as the spectral abbess around her abandoned convent where in 1640 happenings paralleling and nearly concurrent with those of the French convent of Loudon (dramatized in Aldous Huxley's book and inflated into Ken Russell's "The Devils") were said to have occured; after Cromwell's invasion, Leamanah Castle in Clare likewise boasted a lady now impoverished, the O'Brien's Máire Rua.

Curran figures such tall tales were propaganda spread by the English against the native clans. Mary Butters, "the witch of Carmoney," however, in Presbyterian Antrim long after the collapse of the clans shows the power of black rumor allied against a woman on the margins in 1808. Concluding, Curran reminds us of the "age-old wariness" many have of a crone, "just in case." (Posted to Amazon US 12-14-09)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Credo quia absurdum?


What do I believe? I was asked this after a slew of reviews. As a scholar I tend to analyze and cite, rather than expound on my personal credo.

Tertullian, an early Christian philosopher, is often wrongly cited; "Credo quia absurdum is, of course, a misquote. Tertullian's words are credibile est, quia ineptum est (De carne Christi 5.4)." Robert Sider argues this in "Credo Quia Absurdum?". But I promised no footnotes, so here I cannot get past my own blog entry's title's verification. My training runs deep.

And that's the point. It's hard for an academically trained type; Tertullian or me, we face the same challenge. It's credible because it's inept, that is, defying belief. The absurd becomes the basis for our faith, our attribution to a force beyond our reason or understanding that we then trust, that we accept as worthy of our confidence as the concrete evidence that surrounds us.

My melange of denominated tendencies begins with cradle Catholicism from an Irish-American upbringing still strict enough to have imprinted itself upon me deeply despite a post-Vatican II childhood, as the very first generation who came of age after the Latin Mass and Baltimore Catechism (although my parents duly bought me a copy whose illustrations I still recall vividly). By college, I had already begun drifting away, although difficulties during grad school brought me into an ambivalent dance of moving closer and then stepping back from the Church. By the time my wife and I established our relationship, I'd begun shifting first through Eastern Catholicism-- for its theological perception of God as emanations we could grasp but not His essence intrigued me-- and then, intersecting with our realization that a liberal form of Judaism might allow us a shared space within which to raise a family, into the faith that she was claimed by as a member even if she grew up with but a shaky grasp of its tenets.

For a while, this space supported us. Both parental pairs regarded by mixed bemusement or subtle hostility our decision. But, as my wife noted in a conversation with a friend that I half-overheard about a year ago, ultimately a more dogmatic approach "didn't take" with our kids and us. We tend, and I probably bear the most credit or blame, towards skepticism. If I was not around I reckon my wife and our sons would have grown up firmer in their Judaism, but who knows? My dissenting mindset mixes with theirs and it half-formed them, and half-differs from hers.

We live in an environment where hardly any of their classmates from the JCC had two Jewish parents, and while many of their classmates continue to be my sons' friends-- as had been predicted by their principal the first day we visited the Silverlake-Los Feliz JCC-- these diverse boys and girls reflect the reality of a diverse Los Angeles outside the enclaves in the Valley or Westside where one can surround one's family with camps, schools, shul, and friends who stick to a Jewish way of life.

Anyone thinking that "Yiddishkeit" or delis or comedy alone can keep a Jewish heart alive should note "Seinfeld" or "Curb Your Enthusiasm" as portents-- not only of their creators' wishes to "pass" in Hollywood, but of a doddering nod to trust in schtick and stand-up as reliable indicators of Jewish identity. Contrast this with assimilation, intermarriage and compromise that American Jews now accept, outside of the Orthodox, as inevitable. Watch a Judd Apatow film where the schlub desires the blonde; that director's wife mirrors what we see projected. Conversion and blended families, secularization and modification, will mark whatever Judaism marks my sons, with their surnames, as a different breed if from the same tribe within. This transformation will alter whomever chooses to identify with Judaism in a diasporic community far far different than any other in the three-thousand years of the people's history.

I never spoke more than a few sentences to a Jewish classmate until I entered my M.A. program. I knew nearly no Protestants, until then, also. Just as I was raised in a totally Catholic milieu, who can say if such an immersion will ensure continuity in a nation where 44% of us "switch" from our childhood or ancestral faith, or lack of, nowadays? Soon, you will, for the first time in a long time, likely not "tell" who's a Jew by their name, their appearance, or at least part of their genealogy. New sitcoms may be pitched on just such a premise; "Bridget Loves Bernie" no longer as instant joke?

Of course, Catholics have no worries about losing numbers, while Jews do. This places on us a low-level guilt, for we wonder if we're betraying a promise, an obligation laid on us by my choice to follow my wife into Judaism, and our commitment to guide our sons. Yet, and this sums up my own attitude, I argue that imposing rigidity will not lock them into a "Torah-true" path anyway. It may drive them towards a desperate flight from a faith or a practice. I'd rather sleep more soundly knowing they've been exposed to what they are within Judaism, that they have the basic orientation inside upon which they may test moral and spiritual guidance, and they have a confidence that they can continue to seek their fulfillment.

My wife blogs often about her own struggles with her soul's direction, within an attenuated ancestral allegiance that attracts her often but also daunts her. Writing the past year to three Jewish prisoners, all of whom grew up in a similar Californian setting where no ties to the ancient practices strongly bound their families to the life they'd left behind in moving here, she's had to confront her own questions. Meanwhile, she responds to theirs about a faith that it turns out they all clutch tiny fragments of, as they try to fit their pieces within the puzzle.

For me, I stand at more of a distance from any genetic bond. What's pulled me in, of course, has been my Irish identification. Catholicism by definition enters this, even if one is a Protestant (or in one case we know, a beloved, cranky, Belfast-bred Jew). Yet, so does the Celtic, and then pagan, foundation, if one so deep and so broken by 1500 years post-Patrick that (as I've written lately) one can dimly glimpse and not grab securely what remains after so long a Christian overshadow.

They say the Celts did not believe so much in omnipotent gods but more powerful humans who, euhemerized (great word), were transformed into deities. The supernatural intervention beloved of a "deus ex machina" Greek's frequently lacking in the Ulster Cycle. Heaven's downplayed, but life's fleeting. I must have cottoned on to this early in my childhood reading, somehow. I'd enter the little of nature I could and there I'd sense a presence lacking in a man-made sanctuary-- especially after Vatican II denuded so many altars and snuffed out their candles. Stars still comfort and terrify me equally, or awe-fully. If you ask me I might prevaricate as a Ph.D., but inside, I can attest that I feel an energy latent, if not for rational me manifested fully due to my intellectual caution, within creation.

I looked up "panentheistic" to check my recall of this term the other day. A pantheist finds "God is nature." A panentheist holds that "God is in the Whole." A subtle distinction, but the point being that the latter concept allows a Whole beyond a deity (or deities) manifested within only the organic or visible realms.

A universe or multiverse that precedes or takes in a Creator, even. Brian Clegg's book "Before the Big Bang," which entered my thoughts up in Big Sur where I reviewed it last August, suggests that before the blast that inflated our horizons, there may be dim echoes and trace elements of a recurring pattern, branes colliding, background radiation persisting, that each Big Bang all but obliterates, worlds with end, amen. This end-runs around Anselm's Ontological Principle, and shows that we can have indeed posit a God greater than than we can conceive, if it's a Force that stands outside the universe and allows the First Cause creating "ex nihilo" to be itself inconsistent from what we perceive-- even if we can never prove this to convince a medieval theologian-- as a scientifically postulated space that can, after all and after all ends, never be created... since it has always existed.

This aligned neatly for me with a Buddhist concept. I noted in my blog-Amazon US review of Clegg how he elides over this connection. The recurring model, rather than chronologically Big Bang-> endless expansion theory or the Big Bang-Big Crunch start-stop alternative, fits for me better. It may defy Anselm's thousand-year-old logic, but he did not live in a world of satellites. Clegg predicts that we soon may know much more with the new telescopes we're sending up. Buddhism, as the Dalai Lama has reminded us, if it clashes with scientific proof, would cede a contested doctrine to reason. It does not fear progress. (I've written a lot about Buddhism as a blog keyword search shows, so I will be brief.) I like its lack of digging in and insisting that it alone holds the right way towards salvation. Instead of theistic reward, it leads to inner enlightenment-- a telling distinction. For a Buddhist, the impermanence that the Big Bang's recursive and brane theories suggest may not threaten a belief, but may confirm its ancient message that all things must pass.

Even if the Quiet Beatle was a Hindu; my other favorite term lately's "henotheist": one can believe in one deity while not denying the efficacy of others. Tolerance and its lack among many believers and deniers alike wearies me. Sin happens when we fail to better ourselves and others, not when a god or Santa marks a demerit. Salvation comes when we welcome a messiah to this world, even as atheists or gentiles, when we learn to get along. That's about it for my eschatology these post-purgatorial days.

If we move away from intolerant monotheism, for here my discomfort may lie with my formative mindset, what's next? I've often referred since taking the BeliefNet.com quiz about my religious affiliation vis-a-vis double 100% scores as Mahayana Buddhist & Neo-Pagan. These two don't really match, on the other hand, so they may register I suspect my past study with my ongoing research-- combined with personal reflection-- on Western adaptations of Buddhism. This overlaps Celtic sympathies that may have re-emerged, filtered through an inbred leaning that my childhood may have deeply embedded within me. Despite habitual Catholicism, which tied for last place at 13% in that quiz. Still, another quiz about my spiritual attitudes put me as a Straddler, smack between the observances of more conventional worship and the freer floating thinking and not-thinking akin to a restless seeker such as me.

Added to this, or showing my lack of grounding, another test I took pegged me as an Agnostic-Atheist. The conflation of these terms irritates me, and an exchange with the head of "Atheists United" ticked me off. For 2/3 of the article she presented herself as an atheist. Then this leader defined herself as really an agnostic, to me a related but fundamentally very different philosophy. (No more footnotes but it was Bobbie Kirkhart interviewed by Patt Morrison in the L.A. Times on 12 Dec. 2009.)

That quiz asked me and I confirmed that "God can neither be proven or disproven." For me, a truly agnostic admission. My wife disagrees. She sees God's presence all around her. I have wandered far from this comfort although I grew up with this view. But perhaps I sense it in the fleeting moments of a bird that alights on a branch, or a desert sunrise-- if more than in the maggot that crawls in dog crap or the cancer that kills a third of us. My romantic soul battles here with my pessimistic mind. I find it difficult to attribute a unicorn-and-rainbow goodness to our world when within it, disease and decay also linger, on a planet where we labor in vain to eradicate killers in cells. Remove man, take away incarnation, get rid of revelation, tear up inspired scripture, and still you'd have predators, germs, microbes, and slaughter, far as I can tell. We place over this a storyline of salvation and transcendence, but I suspect it for its wish-fulfillment. We need happy endings; that's why we call them fiction, to paraphrase somehow Oscar Wilde.

Still, I wrote a Master's paper on Tolkien's "eucastrophe," his idea that the Gospel was the first myth that came true. I admire this argument, and once I agreed with it. My sympathies persist, and my medievalist preparation imbued me with an appreciation and respect for this ideal even as my own life's trajectory moved me past it, for as I wrote my dissertation, I found my own beliefs changing.

So, I cannot-- as those quiz results prove-- stay in one checked denominational box. I lack confidence that a loving god or pantheon guides us. After we die all I can say is that we will return to whatever unknowable, unfathomable, and/or non-existent mystery preceded our conception. I aver that it's impossible to one way or the other confirm anything more. My decade working on a dissertation on "the idea of purgatory in Middle English Literature" attests to my interest in the topic, even if the medievals failed to convert me to their pieties. The condition of the soul before it came into a body, as some Neo-Platonic concoction, has for as long as I can remember intrigued me: it was the first philosophical or theological question I formulated as a precocious lad already troubled by mortality and my soul's fate.

In my family tree, around 350 CE, there's a clan ancestor that my great-grandmother as a Connellan from Roscommon may trace her line to. Typically arcane genealogical explorations led me to this fellow, "Ono," who was a Druid. Combine that with the East Mayo "tinker" that then birthed the woman who was my maternal grandmother and you get suggestive, if again romanticized naturally, DNA traces that for a guy like me, stuck in the city, still spark faint but delightful imaginings. I've always loved "origin myths." The ways we explain how we got from way back to now intrigue me. I suppose my own search for faith combines with my own turn back to Ireland.

My teacher, soon to become an ex-nun, freshman year at my distantly-Jesuit-run university, told me I was a Pelagian. My lack of confidence in original sin as staining us, and my trust that the soul unaided by an infusion of grace could attain salvation, set me at odds with orthodoxy. Yet, I learned that this was a decidedly Celtic heresy, and similar misgivings that such as Anselm would have brought from his Italy to Canterbury about such as John Scotus Eriugena's avowal of a primitive creation spirituality, a sort of panentheism, may betray my own genetic theology.

"Magic" may be denigrated or cheapened now, but I suggest in its expression of the inexplicable delight and the uncanny omen it's but too-loose a term for what we cannot account for. A nagging, sense-defying sixth sense that beyond our intellect another level of action, and perhaps meaning, persists: I can live with this. I've always felt that energies move around us. We may tap into them for good or evil purposes. I betray my own naivete or my core creed. Where they come from and where they go I may lack an ability to tell, for I may accede to them without witnessing them myself. But, today at least, absurd as it may be, that's what I might believe.

Image: "Godless Columbia: Terminology FAQ"

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Tehachapi Saturnalia, Chinatown Christmas


"It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business"--Cicero ca. AD 50 (Sen. epist. 18,1-2). Triumphalist Christians-- who earlier never celebrated birthdays as did pagans-- moved a date the start in March of the Roman New Year to the winter sun-god's feast at the darkest time of December. Masters and slaves changed places then; not a custom the Christians adapted. What Seneca called Saturnalia we, of course, peddle, preach, and promote as Christmas. Do I celebrate it now? When I write a bilingual entry in Irish soon here, I will translate that as such, for ease and from my Gaeilge limits in fluency.

Yet, in English, I would affirm rather that I help others do so now, while no longer commemorating the Nativity personally. We attended-- for the first time I can recall in a long, long time-- a Christmas Eve party. A real one under a twelve-foot tree. Nobody among the eighteen gathered I suspected would be tottering out the next day to a Midnight Mass or even a morning service, but nominally, for once in my limited social life, gentiles easily outnumbered the Chosen. Attesting to how out of sync I am: my first "Secret Santa," which as an episode my kids were watching the next day of "The Office" explained to me, the gift exchange of either desired or useless items depends on the luck of the draw. Under the command of those earlier picked to "steal," those later in line pluck the dwindling pile of packaged plunder. Midway in the shuffle, I received what turned out to be humorist David Sedaris' dyspeptic "Holidays on Ice," which fits my mood about the season of commodified goodwill.

Still, I enjoyed the party as I knew everyone there, which helped my anxiety, and I even liked a novel drink, sparkling Shiraz. (I'm not much for champagne.) I learned from a crew member on "Avatar" about how a main character's formative story-- due to a studio demanding a shorter running time to fill more seats daily-- was left on the cutting room floor, in edits even before shooting, I reckon. I stood on the porch of our host's splendid home overlooking part of the Arroyo Seco and watched the stoplight down the hill blink on and off. I chatted a bit and ate well my wife's contribution of Indian curry, and nibbled Triscuits with salmon and cream cheese while coming in tied for second (we suspect the teenaged winner of cheating on the Net upstairs) in a very difficult Christmas trivia quiz.

We left with the fun in full throttle at 11, but we had to, as we left the next day before dawn, at 5:30. One son slept in, the other came along as we drove into the desert and I watched the car thermometer go from 41 at home (=cold by our standards if not yours) down to 22 as we reached the hundred-mile mark. The sun rose and the brightness over the Mojave immediately made me put on my sunglasses under a nearly cloudless sky. The air does brace you by a clarity and healthy intensity lacking in the L.A. Basin, that weatherman's term for the bowl of smoke and dust we live in.

Two hours later, we pulled into Garcin's Grill, a humble Mexican place on the eastern border of Tehachapi. We hadn't been impressed by the breakfast diner we tried our earlier visit, so I was game for a change. My breakfast burrito was solid, although I suspected in asking (there's a first time for everything) for a veggie adaptation of the meat filler that bits of hated cauliflower lurked inside. One advantage of the dish's presentation's that you have less of a sense of what's inside anyway. Its tomato salsa I found excellent, the best of its kind I'd ever had, and even humble hash browns and French toast for Layne and Niall satisfied. Our waiter made sure the moment we opened the door to leave to dash, my wife noticed, over to our table to see if we'd left the money on the table. Perhaps our sweats and dark colors alerted him as a local to the fact we were there to visit the other locals that the Chamber of Commerce never mentions.

We got to the prison only half-an-hour after it opened. My navy-blue sweater, which to myopic me (I hear women can tell colors better anyway) looked black enough when I donned it in the dark bedroom three hours earlier, was rejected (any blue shade nears prisoner's denim garb) and Niall had to wear his green long-sleeved t-shirt under his other one, as that drifted near guard's khaki according to Officer A. Garcia's scrutiny on arrival. We waited, a bit colder, fumbling along with everyone else to work the machine that for $2 gave you a ticket that would grant you a "ducat" for a photo-op inside with your inmate. As before, I was called first, and navigated the shoe check and coat pat and glasses scan. On the other side of the metal detector, one naturally cannot see the entrance. As I had earlier, this time I would have waited for my son and wife, but the guards urged me and others separated to get on the bus so our visits would be able to begin sooner than later.

It turned out it did not matter much. The block Alan's in is the last one on the route, which takes you around what before the Depression was a state park full of wildflowers in an Indian valley, but now is full of barbed-wire, towers, concrete blocks, parking lots full of late-model cars and trucks, and dusty fields where nothing grows (as prisoners may hide weapons in the dirt and make out of crops what can be smuggled in for pruno). Slashes of a true novelty, snow, lingered from a storm we'd had ten days ago, and at 4000 feet, they might stay on the upper slopes around the valley until summer.

By the time I arrived, along with a pair of young men, one with what in less charitable times might have been called a gimpy leg-- who looked straight out of John Huston's adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's Southern gothic novel retitled on screen as "Wise Blood"; their family did not disappoint either-- at the wing, a guard came along into the gate. Whoever was on staff, earning double-time at least on Christmas, found himself cheery in the tower as he slid remotely the fence open for us. The guard who walked behind us was there, a few minutes later, to escort a man in a grey watch cap and carrying a small mesh bag stuffed with odds & ends, to either freedom or another jail. We seeing him through the window hoped he found a wonderful Christmas gift; others said aloud with conviction that they hoped he learned his lesson and that he'd be gone for good. We waited for entrance, the third checkpoint, deeper into the incarceration that one man had left.

Yet we'd stay always at a remove. The visitor's room is large, like a "multipurpose room" at a 1960s elementary school. Other similar spaces, day rooms, now housed, in Alan's case as he would point out to us from a short distance, 180 men in bunks. He was delighted to be in a far corner by a wall now, away from what would be a true torment for light-slumbering me, a door that slammed like a rifle shot with every exit, heightened by the wind that whipped often at this elevation near this mountain pass that separates the high desert from the Central Valley.

It's painted with murals. One of the sea, but the vending machines take up more of that wall. One above a few plastic high chairs, of Disney characters. I watched from my chair the one of Dumbo, my favorite of the animated creations taking up the side. I waited for twenty minutes to see Alan come in, but only when I waved at last to my wife through the bars did he arrive; she and my son then were held back another half-hour, a few feet from Alan and me, before the last gate opened to let them in.

Meanwhile, Alan and I chatted about what my wife in her entry the night before, "Jesus Died So We Could Eat Chinese," had reflected upon. Like Alan, she had grown up in a deracinated suburban California, with an Eastern Seaboard-born but soon fled-West woman who sought to distance herself from her family, her past, and from the shreds left from an already secularized Judaism. My mother-in-law and Alan's mother may have arrived twenty years or so apart, one in the Depression, one on the cusp of an Aquarian Age, but they shared an urge to put their Yiddishkeit behind them. Both their children, who'd meet again today after months of letters, and two delays due to a swine-flu and chickenpox threat respectively, searched now for meaning within an ancestral tradition that they questioned as much as they accepted. It mirrored their own ambivalence within complicated situations that never bedevilled-- real devils in gentile form did that job quite efficiently-- their shetl forebears in quite these Californian guises.

Finally, the other two-thirds of my family arrived, after Alan put in a word with the bottle-blonde guard gaining, he told us, even more overtime. He's respected, and his presence, as Layne noted to me later, shows that both his fellow inmates and his jailers understand he carries himself with confidence under grueling circumstances. As he told us later, he strives to distance himself inside and outside from the immense pressures by both factions to warp him, to distort his humanity. This has impelled him to look into his background, so obscured to him on the outside, and so ignored by his mother, who threw herself into the hippie era of the Bay Area to reinvent herself and to follow a series of men from town to town (he went to three different kindergartens) in her own confused yearning for lasting meaning.

We walked around the yard a bit under sharp sun. I admired his "transitional" specs that turned-- if slowly inside-- from dark to light. We chatted about Crogan's Irish pub in Walnut Creek, about I.R.A. prisoners, about lupines and poppies and whatever tiny purple blooms an inch big filled the random stretches of the ground still free from concrete or asphalt to return to their primitive renewal come spring.

Against the wall, couples tried to cuddle; others sat decorously with parents or siblings at slab tables; a child scampered with a volleyball to chase as his dad and mom got a chance to be parents together. Alan told me of how the same guard who he had asked to let my wife and child in delighted in the mail room, in the rush of the first shift's demands to get the mail out, in skimming and stamping the letters. She also loved to switch outgoing letters: spouse #1 might get a letter "accidentally" in the envelope addressed to spouse #2, or at least a competing girlfriend. When we left, it may have been that toddler who cried across the room "Bye Daddy." I thought of how many relationships crumbled under the emotional assault of one beloved man or woman inside for years or decades.

The sun at noon beat down upon the hills, and the snow shrunk to a few small slivers sunk into stony ravines under winter's dry glare. Inside, a very frail, elderly couple (we learned all the way from Utah; they'd ridden in the bus with Layne and Niall) talked to their son. The father'd been harassed and held up by the guards as they nitpicked over his halting gait and hurried him along, despite or because of the resistance that he represented to their routine, their attitude, their control.

That's what Alan emphasized. A sheer difficulty of showing a human side to either one's mates or one's jailers. He told us simply how he loved us for being there, and listening; yet at the same time he stumbled over this admission. For, it made him vulnerable, and human in a manner that this institution, despite the addition under our current Governor Schwarzenegger of "R"-for-Rehabilitation to the CDC for California Department of Correction, chose to ignore, suppress, and eliminate.

So, magnified this holiday that the four of us in molded chairs the small table, just below our knees to prevent surreptitious contraband (unlike at Long Kesh, I mused after a recent viewing of "Hunger"), did not "celebrate," we watched warmth that others displayed. A rush on machines brought hamburgers, lasagna, burritos, popcorn, Cokes, chips to tabletops. Hand-holding looks quaint on the outside, but here, it reminded me of an innocence expressing desires unable to be fulfilled for many years, perhaps. That expanded Southern Gothic clan next to us borrowed a Scrabble set and Monopoly game; back of them, a dyed-auburn ponytailed lass with her beauty fading early, forming a gut (as most of the visitors) leaned over. Her thong rode way up past her elasticized waist. I thought from far off it was a black line-with-red-heart tattoo.

Our photos were taken not as I'd hoped beside Dumbo in flight, but by some custom or rule under the same Arctic panorama as every other inmate with guests. The view reminded me of global warming as I peered at its ice floe; finishing Marcel Theroux's post-apocalyptic "Far North" Siberian novel a few nights before cast its gloom over me. I buttoned up my peacoat as my red t-shirt (my only long-sleeved one) is not the shade that looks best on me. (You can see the results on my wife's entry about the visit: "Closed for the Holidays.")We four stood and smiled, sort of, for half of us did not or never did in pictures. The colors of the mural looked great, and the bear above our heads added to the surreal quality of this day, five hours in the dead of winter under an insistent single star that sought, only days after the shortest one, to recapture its domination over the land and the people below.

Surrounded by fantasized scenes, we discussed other scenarios. Alan told us he's tackling Dante, and I sympathized. My scholarly side and my teaching side combined to hasten to ask him if he had an annotated version. I quailed at being stuck without such, struggling to rely on the text alone. I promised to get him the Oxford one-volume all-in-one with notes edition, and "The Táin" (I assumed it was this from him seeing a blurb in a book remainder catalog) translated by Thomas Kinsella from the same publisher. I assured Alan it was "more fun than 'Beowulf.'"

This led us, along with an admiration that Niall and he had in common for Teddy Roosevelt, to a consideration of the Torah. A Chabad rabbi assigned to Bakersfield (speaking of exile in the diasporic wilderness) visiting the prisoners seemed to be warming up a bit after two years. The chaplain gave him not only a cold latke for Hanukkah but a hug. Yet, as he'd withdrawn from the kosher meal deal, Alan felt a reluctance to pursue so diligently the observance, the letter of the Law as defined by the Orthodox-- or this version of such-- in a place where drawing attention to one's self could never be wise, and where the expectations of a model of piety invented in 18c Poland were reduced to one imported for half a dozen curious Jewish inmates where the Mojave sun bested the snow, even in the depths of fresh winter.

I reflected on the admission attributed to the Hebrews who at Sinai accepted the Law: "we will do and we will understand." The interpretation: follow the commandments and by acting them out, the reasons for doing so will later emerge. I had learned this years ago, but now that phrase reminded me, in this environment, of what Alan earlier in our discussion had lamented. The authority barks the command, and those hearing it have no choice but to carry out the order, like children. God takes the initiative in Torah; we may whine or even bargain, but we'd better wind up following the Path, or else, brimstone, leprosy, and slaughter. Not much of an afterlife, but this one can be Sheol enough, in these scriptures composed out of another desert, another fortress.

But as adults, should we be reduced to the regimen exerted by teachers, guards, parents, preachers? Does discipline restore these shattered humans to health? In a top-down system that's cut nearly all opportunities for rehab, it's punitive. Only coercion runs this regiment, with no funds for training beyond three skills: welding, heating & air-conditioning repair, and electronics. Unless you need a GED, and that's no longer prepared for in a class of 30 but as a pre-fab worksheet lesson plan delivered to 200 inmates working on it somehow largely on their own (it's cheaper). How can those inside so ordered learn to handle life on the outside?

There's not true direction shown but harsher penalties imposed. The "correction"'s lacking, for mentally ill and undereducated inmates were left broken and twisted. Most prisoners read at less than what passes for a dumbed-down "8th-grade" level; many are unbalanced or become so behind bars. The buzzword "tikkun olam" to "repair the world" of lefty Jewish activists remained in my mind, but so did my readings of Michael J. Santos' "Inside" and Ted Conover's "Newjack." Both federal inmate and Sing Sing guard concurred that our prison industry today thrived on a recurring recividism, never reducing the time of those incarcerated, and ensuring there'd never be an end to the overcrowding that makes out of gyms and day rooms stacked bunks with doorslams that sound like guns.

Out of that room, Alan enjoyed a yogurt, his first in thirteen years. He gobbled down melon slices; fresh fruit is denied them. In the visitor's room, visitors shove rolls of quarters in so often that halfway into the period, the machines empty. All Alan gets on the chow line for fruit is an apple. He longed to taste the orange that he could smell recently, the guard unpeeling it standing so close to him. Steak captivated his imagination; prime rib & asparagus were the lunches downed by other guards who ate them as the prisoners could smell that homemade fare. You reading this may respond righteously that there must be punishment to be enforced rather than ended, but the proximity of those in control to those without it reminded me of how I will not eat before I feed my dogs. One of the few Talmud passages I can remember enjoins one to take care of pets before one serves a meal to one's self.

Well, we left after time was called on a five-hour conversation, off for our own meal. Driving past a prison row of stolid trees, I thought about others returning home on trips longer than ours would be. Relatively close as we were to L.A., it took us over two hours to get back. After a quick stop to check our dogs, toss them a snack, and change out of our sweats, we went three more miles to Chinatown. On the way, I laughed out loud at a bumper sticker that summed up this day's religious ponderings: "God is Zeus; Read the Iliad."

Once at Master Chef, our first choice being closed, we waited nearly an hour; the one we usually would have gone to-- the well-named Full House-- was even more congested, lines out the door onto Broadway. We hunted for a parking spot, walked through faux lanes with fake pagodas, under dim 1940 neon signage.

This district, or nearby on College and Alpine Streets, resembles San Francisco, with its steep inclines and Asian sights. A few blocks away, now via a bridge over the first freeway in the world, my wife's mother moved as a teenager, from either NYC or Philly, about the same time that "Old Chinatown"-- typical L.A. fashion-- and the Pasadena Freeway arrived. Workers from the old French Hospital around the corner, across from the library and Castelar Elementary School-- a vista that reminded me of my last Christmas eating pizza across from S.F.'s iconic Castro theater-- stood for their takeout as footage of the pope's aggressive, deluded attacker ran on the TV above the bar. So did updates on a thwarted attack on a plane; I sighed at what delays this would trigger at every airport. I slouched by the wall, over a pile of green beans, riffing through the day's thin newspaper.

Finally, we ate an admittedly scrumptious garlic flounder, with veggie platters. Customers wanting our table watched each morsel. Even next to us in the worst seat in the full house by entrance and the restrooms, a family of six sat on the carpet. I'd never been in a restaurant so packed where we had not left before the meal, so few were the options that not silent if holy to many night "when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle."

Chipper KTLA anchorwomen blathered vapid weather reports. Magic Chef's door kept opening as more customers arrived. They circled us. So did frigid blasts.

Akin to a quieter, less infernal, if lower down in Dante's circle's version of torment. I imagined windy dorms at Tehachapi, and its banging door din. Noise, for me, rattles me no end.

I ended the long day with my thoughts returning to Alan. He told us he'd get roast turkey for dinner, albeit in the form of a compressed loaf the size of a baseball. He certainly missed good eating. He and I had discussed fishing; a student of mine had given his report the week before on fly fishing-- a topic I knew nothing about.

I wondered if Alan had ever seen the Oregon town he named to me, near Portland. His mother lives there now with her husband. They wrote him of no logging going on there now, and the fishing trade declining as people cannot afford to buy fish. Did trout swim there? I noted ours was pricy, and our total bill a demonic $66.60. I see omens everywhere. Yet my fortune cookie predicted: "Gentle hints will help you decide the best answer."

Alan marvelled at how you could live where they did and troll in a freshwater lake and then go down to a saltwater switch, in a great loop that his mother's home overlooked, one side facing the Columbia river and the other the Pacific. He described a wonder there, Multnomah River Gorge. I shared my own far too few visits in the Northwest where he contemplated moving to, perhaps, on release. Before he went in, he lived in Northern California in a more rural area of the Sierras, known only for its state college and its brewery. I could tell he longed to leave, and who would not, for a quieter bunk in that expanse in a cooler Cascadian ridge. To such a retreat, by the time my younger son, we hope, gets ready to graduate from college, Alan may return to start over again as his own free master on Saturnalia.

Illustration via Fústar (Irish for "busy, agitated behavior") on "Caught in the Furze," all about Wren Day, 26 December, the day I wrote this piece, and as with Saturnalia, Christianized as St. Stephen's feast, casting obliquely via Wrenboys & Mummers a grim shadow of pagan ritual.)

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)

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)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Stonehenge Stuff & Solstice Thoughts

"What's with all the Stonehenge stuff these days?" So inquires a fellow Irish American who shares such predilections, but who wonders why so many book reviews in a row. I answered her on Facebook:
"it's a continuation of the Celtic Buddhist concepts and inventions that I've been researching the past year, and which I spoke about at Maynooth two months ago. I learned there listening to real neopagans who were also scholars that I needed to find out more about the contexts in Ireland and Celtic cultures which they worked in, to understand the eclecticism into which Buddhist converts were mixing and matching. Thus, my witchy pagan reading lately, which I've strung up as blog posts timed for the solstice, wouldn't you know?"


I'm sitting typing this in the sun, not even 2 p.m., as it already lengthens across me and the (mostly) black cat, Gary, who since my work laptop was partially resurrected, likes to keep me company and watch the screen. Yesterday we were also here as the rays basked us, and I thought about my research interests, and how they intersected with my personal ones. My wife noted last night-- as she prints out my blog entries if not book reviews (too arcane) to send off to a prisoner whom we hope to visit Christmas morning-- how my posts had not been non-academic for this current mailing. So, at least two readers have remarked, if obliquely, on this bent. I figured I'd ruminate.

An interlibrary loan, Michael Strimska's edited "Modern Paganism in World Cultures," finally came in nearly two months after I'd requested it. As I wrote about in a related Irish entry after the Maynooth one, at Loughcrew cairns, I'd been talking to Carole Cusack, a medievalist like me, who after her work on the Christianization of the Saxons in Germany became so disheartened that she gravitated into the study of paganism. This anthology she recommended to me, as I'd already done background reading into neopaganism. She'd published her book on the decline of the traditional ways under the assaults of missionaries, kings, and Teutonic Knights; it's listed by Strimska in the preface, so far what I've finished of his collection.

Insiders within these movements-- who are mostly professional and all academically trained scholars-- present case studies from America, the British Isles, and Europe. Here, Italians, Irish, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, a few in our U.S. military, English "Heathenry," and Icelandic & North American Asatru have all returned to, reinvented, and revived their ethnic and "natural"-- in both senses of the term-- traditional practices. This process for me from Celtic Reconstructionism I knew, but I was less aware of a renaissance other European nationalities, glossy profiles about pixieish Björk among her island's fellow elf-followers aside.

I'll be intrigued to find out more; Cusack praised its fine essay on Druidry, but only later did I discover it's written by another scholar with whom we'd shared information at that very conference that weekend, Jenny Butler of University College, Cork. She had given as a participant-researcher her perspective on Irish neopaganism, her dissertation topic. As I have commented before, the pairing of those who believe with those who analyze we are very familiar with from every variety of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, but for lesser-known practices, those able to combine belief with detachment to survey their field may account for their modest profile even in scholarship to date. (Pre-eminent scholar Ronald Hutton tells of such denigration by his own colleagues in "Witches, Druids, and King Arthur"-- as reviewed by me in my previous blog post and on Amazon US.)

As I studied Strimska's introduction, discussing such misconceptions, my wife had the BBC World News on. A segment came on about the rise of British pagans, now up to 100,000 and rapidly increasing. A man with a hooded antler decoration stood among a circle of worshippers at yesterday's winter solstice. The broadcast took pains to be fair. (We noted in the same segment a house in Nazareth's excavation was labelled as when and where "Jesus is said to have lived"-- this careful qualification'd never be uttered in America.) Still, my decidedly liberal and tolerant (compared to me) wife snorted as the earnest, happy pagan family interviewed was shown on their suburban estate in Dorset. My fourteen-year-old son asked me then what were pagans. Are they satanists? I replied, looking up from my book, that they were not, but they were people looking for a nature-based religion that went back to pre-Christian practices and beliefs. Education comes slowly for us.

So far, as with witches and the controversy that I mentioned in chairing a panel discussion on goddess spirituality at NUI Maynooth, even basic terms become contentious. Like "queer," can a despised group reclaim the word that has denigrated them? Is neo-pagan a put-down or an honest admission of the lack of continuity most Western Europeans suffer when seeking to resurrect a heritage warped into "folklore" at best and obliterated most of the time by Western church and state over millennia?

Is it safe to declare one's self a pagan when this represents opposition to the ruling powers in global cultures, even in secular, scientific, or capitalist guises? Pagans, as Strimska carefully explains in his study, debate similar questions. I think of neopagans as a depth charge, feared by many who condemn or caricature the Other, diffused from our ghost tales and vampiric fantasies, full of forests and specters, rituals and spells. Certainly-- as my family even displayed reacting to their coverage on the most even-handed network an American at least might imagine, the BBC-- pagans remain misunderstood. I wonder how many of them I have met without knowing it, with so much ostracization, prejudice, and mockery aligned against them?

After a quarter-century teaching, I conjure up only one student that spoke up, a confident woman who was ten years ago about my age. Among an enormous class (over 50) for "Technology, Culture & Society," the course I give regularly, a liberal-arts token in the pile of technical and business chips credited for the gambler that this degree program will result in lucre and ease for those enrolled where I labor, a wild card indeed. She wore a small silver pentacle, a metal disk, around her neck, so I asked her later about it after I had noticed it while handing out the syllabus. She replied simply that she was a pagan. Her confidence and ease impressed me-- I wonder if she as so many poised and motivated students whom I teach was a veteran-- and I learned a bit more from her about pentangle and pentagram vs. pentacle, for good measure. My encounter with these insignia limited to heavy-metal logos and "Sir Gawain & the Grene Knyght," a rare chance for me to talk about a topic even remotely connected to my ever-receding, Ph.D. trained, once intense and now by professional duty fading, medievalist past.

That quiz I took a few months ago fixing me at a neat hundred percent both for Mahayana Buddhism (a tendency I read by a "Buddheo-pagan" that in his opinion urges "antidotes" for difficulties while Theravada "avoids" them, an interesting distinction; he said Tantric-Bo strains via Tibet then embraced and engaged these energies rather than eluding them, by magic and propitiation and control) and "Neo-Pagan" did cause me to reflect. Given my research and thinking the past nearly two years the first caused me less of a double-take than the second match-up. After all, I don't count myself as a tree-hugger. I am pale, resist the sun, and am a stay-at-homebody. While I admire the outdoors I prefer to encounter it in the shade, from inside, in a comfy chair and cup of tea-- much like my setting this moment.

But then I tuned in to my wavelength. I recalled from a teenaged study in my religion class where I found myself rooting more for the witch of Endor than the prophet Samuel; the temple women who served Astarte by spirit as sex rather than the grim priests who slaughtered those worshippers; the Druids who seemed to me far too compliant to give it over to humorless Patrick; the Lithuanians who I learned stood against the Christians until nearly 1400 as the last heathens in Western Europe: I found myself often even as a bookish lad on the side of these underdogs.

I return often in my mind to the lemon groves where I once played that now lie under the Foothill 210 Freeway, and now with my eye to the hills around me carved by gaunt stucco monstrosities. "Developer" to me? An occupation meriting relegation to the lowest circle of hell. New technology allows builders to prop up concrete where they could not before, the relentless push for big-box this and sprawl-fueled that which epitomizes my native overpopulated city. Open space translates as undeveloped land; construction must always push up our quarterly GDP. Progress-- while nods I give to laptops and dentistry and potable water and my doughty Volvo-- can sap my spirits.

Contemplating the continued shabbiness of the Northern legacy unravelling from the Fenian "physical-force tradition" that I've long studied in Irish republicanism; our foreign policy as revenge tangled via one-god dogma through a commander-in-chief however democratically elected; our politics; the systematic reduction of myself as a teacher and my students as learners into corporatized standardization learning platforms and pre-fab formats; the chain store mentality that erodes the little guys and gals; the media demands to spend more this holiday season despite blizzards and foreclosures. Ringing changes on my usual litany of how weary this society makes me.

Perhaps the interest I have in informed dissent, in principled individualism, in the soul's "alternatives" betrays only my romanticism, my hypocrisy as I churn this out on a keyboard and a wireless network's wonder, designed by such as those whom I prepare for that labor force, allow me to pose as if an ethical Luddite. In broadcasting this to you, I am reminded of Margot Adler's survey in her (yes, that review's in line next) "Drawing Down the Moon." Computer workers and data analysts disproportionately comprise a share of those involved in neopaganism. They would agree with what I tell those students in that very course-- the moral Luddite does not as mythic Ned Ludd burn down the factory mills simply out of mindless revolt.

A Luddite weighs the human costs against the machine's demands. That's what I try to do. I cannot give up this keyboard, and I certainly cannot unless Deep Springs College in Death Valley invites me to be one of their ranch-hand profs escape the long reach of the monitor that logs me in and time-stamps my daily required labor as I "deliver" rather more often than truly teach mass-produced course content to my students. Even the post-Thanksgiving shift away from birds in our house and rarely fish on the dish poses a new challenge for my family. But, I attempt as I wrestle with these forces not to "avoid" but as would a good Mahayana to "aspire" to rearrange my troubled soul and soothe my restless intellect. That is, to make out of my ever-shifting religious, spiritual, and mental landscape a place where I can make of not sense than create peace out of my surroundings.

Outside, the sun fell beneath the trees as it neared four o'clock. The brisk wind has stopped and the cat next to my chair looks out on the shadows. I can feel the prematurely twilit change on my hands in the temperature as I finish this. The knoll around our house means that darkness comes even sooner to this small neck of what once were not woods but weeds. But what are weeds unless classified by us? Left alone, a humble wildflower, a nameless bloom, a gnarled thicket. Last night, where the sun set, overhead a crescent moon tilted up as if to hold high above herself a bit of if not all the night sky.

(You know what Stonehenge looks like, and probably those in Druidic panoply. So, a found object, the assertion of the organic over the artificial. We see what we do by framing it, part of our ancient human quality to search for patterns all around us in the natural realm. Out of these we may make up stories and we may see gods. At one time, everyone in our family trees did this. They passed their patterns on: culture. They looked up and made shapes out of stars. We look at them long after the Greeks and Romans turned away from pagan ways. Yet, can we separate their perception of a Big Dipper from our random plot of celestial magnitudes? Have we evolved towards or away from this cognitive tendency today? If so, is this move away from narrative and metaphor towards dissection and measurement an advancement towards the triumph of reason, or a lurch away from ecological balance and awed humility? End of lecture: see Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell" (reviewed by me on Amazon US & this blog a while back) for a rejoinder from the laboratory.

Photo via blogmate, "Bo" of a tree near his Cambridge dwelling, where seasons really do change. Behind the chicken-wire, sylvan mystery opens. This image may be a bit too Georgia O'Keefe after reflection, but I found myself drawn to it. And I never was one for Freud, by the by, so there.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Ronald Hutton's "Witches, Druids & King Arthur": Book Review

These collected essays examine mainly pagans past and present. The title may be pitching an historian's scholarship more widely. For Hutton, the leading expounder of the discontinuity between modern and ancient paganism, such a wider audience may welcome his work.

The essays are uneven in length and scope, and at times some drag. I found my attention wandering on and off, but I admit far less interest in magic than witches, say, and more in Druids than the Renaissance, for example. But all chapters make thoughtful points, and Hutton phrases his judgments with tact and care. He delves into controversial subjects and dismantles falsity. The title and cover may evoke an occult or stereotyped overview of these subjects, but these are advanced essays, geared for the educated reader. Perhaps those less knowledgeable may finish these thoughtful pages with a greater respect for an historian's approach to mythmaking.

"How Myths are Made" takes on the British Isles. Kilts, atrocity tales from the English Civil War, native Irish resistance, or "traditional" Welsh dress, among many examples, can be shown to be fabricated rather than verifiable products from long ago. I found some of his discussion on Irish republicanism, the topic closest to my own studies, to be at times overstated and simplified. But he does resurrect a broad range of delightful anecdotes to elaborate his contentions. As in the faithful hound-legend of Beddgelert, how the Russians were supposed to have infiltrated English ports early in WWI, Margaret Mead's islanders, Melville's "Typee," or how 120 years seems to be the maximum length one can "trust" any orally transmitted memory.

The next two essays explore Arthurian lore-- first how recent academia treats the historicity of Arthur, and then how Glastonbury became a New Age center full of dubious dabblers. The fourth one looks at length into "the New Old Paganism" and seeks to find how monotheism began to supplant polytheism among non-Christians in later antiquity. "Paganism in the Lost Centuries" examines strands of ancient belief that may have become enshrined, so to speak, in the Christian-dominated culture. These two are both densely written studies. For more on this field, by an author whom Hutton barely touches upon, see Pierre Chuvin's "Chronicles of the Last Pagans." (Also reviewed by me on Amazon US and this blog.)

"A Modest Look at Ritual Nudity" tries to find if this practice, contrary to Hutton's earlier thinking that only Wiccans practiced it regularly as worship, and not any ancient cult, may have existed way back. The evidence of course may be suspect as often we only have detractors to track for such charges. Yet Hutton shows here as throughout his scholarship an appealing open-mindedness to sift through masses of difficult sources on touchy subjects to find what seems most likely true.

For Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Hutton returns to their familiar stories to find more pagan foundations than many Christian apologists do for their mythologies. Hutton argues that in the tension between their faith and their love of pagan tales and multiple gods, the two Inklings gained the power that marks their best work. Especially for Tolkien, Hutton reminds us that except for an "accident of publication" (231), the Middle Earth we know would have been preceded by the origin and creation myths of the gods later assembled after his death into "The Silmarillion," and if that work had been put out first, we'd likely read differently the rather understated mindset and populated mythos within "The Lord of the Rings."

In retrospect given two works on the ancient and modern Druids, published later this decade, Hutton's "The New Druidry" appears to be a warm-up for these books. He notes how 200 years of a "dream of syncretic universalism" for pagans in the wake of Romanticism appears to be waning. We see emerging in its place a more localized, land-based practice as becoming grounded by those reclaiming and reinventing "the old native religions." (249)

My favorite essay, "Living with Witchcraft," serves as a coda for his most famous study, "The Triumph of the Moon" (1999). This was the first serious history of modern British neopaganism. Hutton contrasts the patient reception it gained among current witches and pagans-- even as it revised their own origin myths often-- vs. the fears, contempt, and ridicule indulged in by many of his academic colleagues when they learned he studied witches and witchcraft. Even with tenure, he felt his career often at risk when engaging in sensitive research into what's a misunderstood, denigrated, and/or too overdramatized yet very under-explored topic.

Hutton reminds us, for some need so, of how past scholars fumbled their investigations into witchcraft. He shows how professors have toyed with their informants from the pagan community, and how cautiously he then had to tread to keep the confidences he established. His ethics and probity speak well for his difficulties, as he relates in compelling detail how controversial witches remain for the British audience. When learned clerics and esteemed dons scoff at the legitimacy of such research, one can only suppose how everyday folks regard witches and neo-pagans among them. Hutton represents the first sustained attempt to teach the public and the professoriate about the truth of modern witchcraft and its reasons for the same respect accorded other religious practices by today's neighbors.

By the way, the "nine million" supposedly executed in "Burning Times" for their "Old Religion" are shown an extrapolation of a 1793 figure of "9,442,994" from a unnamed local historian in the first chapter. (30) In this final section, Hutton shows how "Triumph of the Moon" sought a more sober revision of inflated discussion of witches past and present. (He estimates 40-50,000 probably died for witchcraft in Europe during Christian hegemony. [31]) (Posted to Amazon US 11-26-09)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Jeffrey Burton Russell's "Witchcraft in the Middle Ages": Book Review

An eminent historian of demonology and heresy relates these to this misunderstood and elusive phenomenon. Russell argues for the reality of witches. He shows how they "usually acted as they were supposed to act." That is, the fluidity of definitions applied by medieval clerics and then inquisitors pressured dissenters to adapt the terms by which they were marginalized, persecuted, and often executed.

He interprets historical, verifiable witchcraft along a continuum. Rejecting the extremes that nobody in the Middle Ages believed in witchcraft and that "weird phenomena are not only real, but supernatural, and proof that the Devil and his minions live," Russell plots the truth along three points. 1) "At least some people were deluded into believing themselves witches." 2) Old pagan cults, folklore, sorcery, and heresy entered into their beliefs and practices. 3) These "as described by the sources (mainly trial records) did exist to a substantial degree." (21)

Russell moves chronologically, if for me too rapidly over the biblical Hebrew references (these barely gain a mention). He establishes proof from primary sources. He estimates that 31% of the Inquisitorial charges were for sorcery, 23% for folklore traditions, 27% for heresy, and 19% for those added by theologians (such as the pact, the Devil's mark, worship of the Devil, the obscene kiss, the sabbat). (I wish he had charted this with geographical and topical data, as graphically this might have enhanced what can be a challenging amassing of material within a densely written text. It's a demanding, depressing, if valuable account.)

Any continuity between ancient and medieval traditions here, Russell insists, was not consciously controlled. Vague, fluctuating, and loosely defined at best, witchcraft drifted as popular and learned opinions shifted. Pagan remnants floated around what was considered witchcraft; Christian opposition shaped how those who resisted its power themselves regarded what they thought of and carried out as witches.

Contrary to common supposition, the Inquisitions (which began ca. 1225-50) did not constitute the only jurisdiction by which witches were summoned and condemned. In his subsequent "A History of Witchcraft" (also reviewed by me here and on Amazon US), Russell notes how the clerisy in some countries treated witches better than the secular forces. "The Inquisitors were taught what to look for, and they always found it, whether it existed or not." (159) Each confession under torture added to the supposed knowledge of what witchcraft was, and the people then were convinced all the more that the next person arrested should live up, or die down, to the "standard" of stereotypical behavior.

Understandably, immense difficulties remain for a medievalist culling the testimony to extract what witches "truly" then believed, as the Latin formulae were mis-translated into the vernacular to be told to the accused and then the admissions were twisted back at variance with the Latin, so a warped nature of the evidence permeates the entire account. This process I admit remained rather unclear to me, and I wish Russell had provided transcripts to explain this more slowly; the book is packed with argument and while not inaccessible, it can be dense and challenging-- he expects you to know what "endura" and "antinomianism" are beforehand, for instance. Throughout, adding to this terrible inversion in the cause of "truth," the torturers elicited from their doomed victims what both sides expected as "proof."

I wondered when starting this if I'd find out an insider's account of witchcraft that survived from the Middle Ages apart from the "testimony" coerced or concocted by tormentors. There seems none survived that we can find. Russell concludes that for both witches and those who hated them, their practice "was the result of fear, expressed in supernatural terms in a society that thought in supernatural terms, and repressed by a society that was intolerant of spiritual dissent." (289) He stresses how its magical and superstitious elements receded as the High Middle Ages determined to define witchcraft as the worst of all heresies. Alienation expressed itself among those marginalized, and as the Jews and heretics and rebels found, so did the witches. Feared by medieval Catholicism-- and its Reformed opponents who increased the body count on their own 16th-17th century "witch hunts"-- witches found themselves forced to define themselves by the shapeshifting terms of those who sought their annihilation.

Written in 1972, the analogies with anti-Communist or anti-imperialist crusades may have faded, but replace those with other terms and you can appreciate the relevance. King Philip IV of France demonstrates how deep cynicism curdled the whole apparatus of "justice." This scourge of the Templars, in 1303, forbade the Inquisition to deal with "sorcerers, usurers, and Jews." (171) Why? He wanted to profit from the confiscated wealth of these despised groups. Separation of church and state, indeed. (Posted to Amazon US 12-14-09)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Russell & Alexander's "A History of Witchcraft": Book Review

This chronologically covers the evolution of what societies perceive as witchcraft. People may deny it, but it's widespread, often with similar images and practices assumed in very diverse instances. Witches exist nearly everywhere if in equally varied forms, despite religious and political efforts to eradicate sorcery.

As with any Thames & Hudson publication, this 2007 work combines an intelligent, accessible, but scholarly introduction with lots of photos and drawings. The last two chapters added to the revision of the 1980 original version feature Brooks Alexander's neopagan coverage. What he and Russell emphasize, as the subtitle "sorcerers, heretics, and pagans" hints, is a triple definition of a "witch". (I did wonder as an aside why neither Russell's 1972 "Witchcraft in the Middle Ages"-- reviewed by me on this blog and Amazon US-- or this book explored the popular association of the term "witch" coming from the Old English for "bending or shaping.") Anthropologists place witchcraft within sorcery as "low magic" that influences natural phenomena to effect practical results desired. Historically, in Europe especially, devil worship has been supposed to be the domain of a witch. This happened far more often, in terms of persecution and murdering those so supposed to be witches, in the Renaissance and Reformation than in the Middle Ages. Whether or not this alleged diabolical contact was practiced, its functions were assumed by church and state to be "proven," and then nearly impossible to disprove. Russell presents many examples of 60,000 marginalized victims hanged or burned for heresy.

"The process is simple. A number of children die. The midwife is a lonely and unpopular widow. Blame for the deaths is fixed on her and expressed in supernatural terms. She must therefore be a witch. But it is well known that all witches fly out at night, make pacts with the Devil, and practise other forms of demonolatry. Questions about all this are put to her under torture, and in her agony and fear she confesses. The confession again reinforces the accepted image of the witch. Misfortunes are interpreted as evil deeds, evil deeds are seen as sorcery, sorcery is perceived as witchcraft, and another human being is tortured and killed." (84)

Russell tends to compress "the intellectual erosion of witchcraft" in the 17th-18th centuries but he does explain how people stopped believing in it once rational causes for the death of a cow of the illness of a child started to gain traction and helped undermine folk beliefs that blamed demons or spells for misfortune. For modern times, the resurgence of witchcraft, both authors remind the credulous, cannot be traced to a purported underground Old Religion. Jules Michelet, with his psuedo-Marxian concept of a deep-rooted agrarian resistance to Church and State, or Margaret Murray, with her deluded insistence that a Dianic cult survived from a "pre-Christian fertility religion that had once pervaded Europe," both are shown carefully to have based their once-influential theories on poor research and wishful thinking. Pagan practices may have survived into today's West, but not the world-view of ancient or folk paganism. That perspective, however, has been reconstructed and revamped, as Alexander reveals.

Contemporary neopaganism asserts its difference against Christian-based domination. It also defies a Western, secular, and rational mindset. Its identity's based in a "contagious excitement of cultural insurrection" as its "functional substitute for missionary zeal." (163) Animism-polytheism-pantheism; feminism; denial of sin; "spiritual reciprocity": Margot Adler's terms sum up its "religious attitude." (I've also reviewed Adler's "Drawing Down the Moon.")

For Alexander, witch hunts show a flaw in human nature: we project our fears of evil on others, we push them away from us, and we "punish them horribly." (193) It is no etymological accident that a witches' "sabbat" connects with the despised "synagogue" supposed to be an assembly of idolators. The fact many of those hunted were women today may account for the determination to reclaim, for many women and gays shunted aside from conventional religions and communities, in witchcraft a place to assert their subversive pride. The growth of both counterculturally based and pop-culture teen witches-- the latter fueled by a conjunction of the Net with Hollywood-- proves a challenge. In Berkeley, typically or atypically, Alexander notes how a witch brought together the traditional and "alternative" believers in an interfaith council as their bridge. How will witches manage to stand in opposition to the norm once they are accepted by ecumenical groups and invited into mainstream society as just another faith?

He closes by urging Neopaganism to be "tempered by critical thought." He finds its role one of elevating syncretic, intuitive approaches to wisdom alongside scientific, atheist, and academically arrogant forms of "physicist" thought. Its synthesis of a more nature-caring, feminist and queer-positive, and humbly reverential, non-punishing outlook he proposes for our millennial age as particularly encouraging. Russell and Alexander in this brief, well-written, and thoughtful survey of a controversial, often sensationalized, and generally misunderstood subject serve readers well in presenting an open-minded approach to the dangers of past discrimination and the present possibilities for future openness to one of the most ancient, yet one of the newest as reinvented, of all belief systems. (Posted to Amazon US 11-22-09)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Pierre Chuvin's "A Chronicle of the Last Pagans": Book Review

This French professor of Greek provides a poignant, scholarly, yet briskly told survey of the decline of paganism in late antiquity. Roughly the two centuries between Constantine (ca. 312) and Justinian span the erosion of the old beliefs and Roman-sponsored state cults. Those living then felt perhaps imperceptibly, most decades, the ebb of what seemed the "natural" faith, but around 392 onward, accelerating before the "fall of Rome" in 410, Christianity under such propagandizers as Augustine, backed by the empire, broke the back of the pagan resistance.

Chuvin shows this pivot-point at work. In Alexandria, the Serapeum may not be well-known today, but its fall after a 391 Milan edict prohibited sacrifices to the gods proved for Egyptian believers a catastrophe. Chuvin follows its demolishment, showing how "in the summer of 392 the god of the Nile inudated the Egyptian countryside as always and fertilized it with his silt, mindless of the sacrileges committed the year before. He did not send torrents of blood or create a hecatomb among the people. The presence of that glimmering ribbon of water must have caused more confusion than we can imagine among all those who, like Libanus, believed the prosperity of the empire depended on the accomplishment of the ancient rites." (68-9)

As this passage demonstrates, Chuvin even in B.A. Archer's translation comes across vividly. Other sections discussing the perpetuation of such (today unlikely) centers as Beirut and Gaza as pagan cities show just how long their histories have been as places of worship, cosmopolitan trade, and factional doggedness in the name of ideology. I did find the treatment of emperor Julian too hasty, and would have liked more about Hypatia-- Chuvin finds her not a martyr for paganism so much as a pagan put in a vulnerable position in sectarian riots turned deadly. The book can brush over the more famous characters but it does show you by a close reading of the historical evidence, mainly textual but sometimes archeological or topographical, the often incremental weakening of the pagan cults and the marginalization of believers as gradually they were prevented from serving in the palace or military.

The parallels to later medieval "court Jews" for influential pagan advisors later on are suggestive; men of action had to become men of learning as the Christians consolidated power in first the court and then the establishment. The learned were the last sometimes to give in, but under pressure, they did. Those in the countryside stereotyped even back then as "pagani" or "country-dwellers" by the urbanized Roman Christians (if not always the urbane Hellenes who also shared in non-Christian practices on the other side of the Empire) are not only those who became, in later usage "peasants." Chuvin reminds us: "Pagani or pagans are quite simply 'people of the place,' town or country, who preserved their local customs, whereas the alieni, the "people from elsewhere," were increasingly Christian."(8)

He does not condescend or exaggerate the last pagans, content to track where they appear in texts and what they did or, by their enemies, were alleged to do. It's a straightforward monograph, and may appeal more to academics than New Agers or those enamored with less-than-solid scholarship. For those, and for a general reader wanting a no-nonsense, yet sensitive, description of how Christians and pagans traded places, so to speak, in advantage and clout over two centuries, this is a good starting point for such an orientation. Yet, Chuvin early on warns: "As for the paganism of our contemporaries who style themselves 'new pagans,' this more often than not perverse form of romanticism has nothing to do with the faith of those who shared Julian's or Proclus' religious beliefs, nor with the ancient civic or imperial cults that such people dreamed of restoring." (6)

This is a sober telling of the fate of those who hang on to a belief that their contemporaries insist, and then enforce, as outmoded. I do wish we had more insight here into everyday people's customs and attitudes towards paganism. While I expect many sources have been destroyed and we rely more on the history as rewritten by the victors, Chuvin does appear to stick too closely to a few accounts that show his main points. If he had branched out more into popular religion and social history, I might have been more interested in parts of this somewhat unadorned tale.

I was reminded, although Chuvin keeps his scholarly circumspection, of the later imperial expansions and political upheavals that accompany the spread of religion and sectarian allegiance. It's unsettling to read in the Mediterranean and Middle East that so many ancestors of those vowing today in those places unswerving fidelity to one version of one God in the past worshipped many gods, rulers, and saw deities in rocks, trees, and stars. It's a lesson perhaps in how our beliefs are linked far more to who's in power than we realize.(Posted to Amazon US 11-18-09)