Friday, June 5, 2009

Spiritual Egyptomania

After around twenty years participation in contemporary Witchcraft, Neo-Paganism and Ceremonial Magick I went back to university as a mature age student in 2004 in order to assess, from an academic standpoint, the claims to historicity of the Neo-Pagan founders I had encountered both through literature and in person. I wanted to find out what academic professionals who specialised in the ancient societies whose religions Pagans purported to be representing and practising had to say about the character of ancient pagan religions. Did they look in any way like modern ones? This was definitely motivated in part by Ronald Hutton's investigations into Modern Pagan Witchcraft in his book 'Triumph of the Moon'. I think Hutton inspired a healthy phase of self-reflexivity within the more honest quarters of modern Paganism and I for one believe we should not be afraid to look critically at both those who were integral to the formation of contemporary Paganism, as well as its current practitioners. Critical investigation is not going to kill Paganism. I was also inspired, on the other hand, by Pagan Reconstructionism, a historical approach to the practice of ancient pagan religions rather than the 'ceremonial magic format' approach of the 'magic circle and four elements' which derived from Wicca and is generally believed to be representative of 'pagan religion' by those who can't be bothered doing much research.

I have just submitted my last essay for my Postgraduate Diploma in Arts (Classics and Archaeology) which was on whether classical accounts of human sacrifice performed within Celtic groves had any basis in reality or were simply part of an imperialist smear-campaign designed to make the 'barbarians' look bad (there is evidence of human sacrifice). I have also just handed in my thesis, which was stimulating to research and exhausting to write, entitled 'Spiritual Egyptomania: The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn'. This thesis shines a harsh spotlight - like Sauron's eye - on the activities and claims to authority of four famous British magicians and investigates their not-inconsiderable legacy today, particularly in Britain. Here's the abstract: This thesis investigates the reception and appropriation of aspects of ancient Egyptian religion by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an exclusive late-nineteenth century British alternative spirituality movement. Initially contextualising the Golden Dawn as standing outside the development of scholarly Egyptology, its direct relationship with the modern Pagan movement is subsequently explained and the implications thereof for contemporary archaeology are outlined. Specific case studies of four Golden Dawn members highlight the order’s imaginative method of obtaining knowledge about ancient Egypt and the erroneous conclusions arrived at thereby. The historically inaccurate, self-serving and misleading picture of ancient Egyptian religion promoted by the Golden Dawn, as well as its unscientific method of obtaining information about the past through revelation rather than reason, is shown to have been adopted by contemporary Pagans who subsequently attempt to impose their erroneous interpretations of the past on to archaeologists, museum curators and heritage workers, to the detriment of archaeology.

I am now excited to be moving on to my higher degree research topic: a comparative study of the symbolic and ritual meanings of trees and pillars in Prehistoric Greece, Egypt and Israel. Trees and pillars are important from the perspective of both landscape and gender. Both trees and pillars occur in images and texts in religious contexts, often in conjunction with women. Represented symbolically when brought into the human sphere, they signify domesticated versions of aspects of wild nature such as groves and mountains. The study of trees and pillars provides us with information about how features of the natural world were perceived as sacred, as well as how women acted as mediators in the relationship between nature and culture. Hooray, I'm looking at three of my favourite topics: ritual, gender and landscape.