Saturday, June 16, 2012

Australian Yule: 21 June

During this season of long dark nights, the constellations Sagittarius and Corona Australis can be seen rising in the east. When observing those stars, we face the very centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way. In southern Australia this is a time of reasonably cold weather but it is not exceptionally wet and almost never snows in the lowlands. Australian plants do not require a winter dormancy, although in Tasmania, our only deciduous tree, the deciduous beech, loses its leaves. Winter is a time of fecundity and growth, many trees are flowering and various animals, including the lyrebird and the sugar glider, are either mating or giving birth. In northern Australia it is the time of the cool dry season. The Bougainvillea festival is celebrated in Darwin and the bright purple flowers are characteristic of this season. Brolgas begin dancing, cassowaries start egg-laying, and white cockatoo chick hatch. For many northern Aboriginal people, this is a harvest time associated with abundant traditional foods.

Meditation: The June-flowering Cootamundra wattle is the universal axis tree, its tiny yellow blossoms symbolising both the infant sun of the earth year, and the multitude of sun-stars in the cosmos. Wattle reminds us that although we are as small as dust motes on a universal scale, at a human level we are all-potential. We perceive the local and the infinite, microcosm and macrocosm. We are stardust. Every man and every woman is a star.

Yule. The dawn procession moves silently except for the muffled crunch of boots upon the damp forest floor as we approach our regular winter ritual site, a large clearing among the eucalypts. In the centre, a Cootamundra wattle planted so many years ago is once again covered in joyous little yellow blossoms and we place candles in a ring around its feathery skirt.

A mother cradling a sleepy baby stands close to the wattle, within the circle of candles, and a libation of golden mead is poured on the earth at her feet. Linking hands, we dance deosil around the tree, chanting: ‘The Child of Promise, the sun’s new light, begin the year, emerge from night.”

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Interview with me for Fainomena Magazine

This is the English version of an interview conducted with me when I was in Greece in April 2012 by Sasha Chaitow. It appeared in Greek in the 2 June issue of PHENOMENA Magazine, distributed with the Eleftheros Typos newspaper.

What brings you to Greece? Can you tell me a little about your research and what has led you to select this particular topic?

I’m doing a PhD at the University of Melbourne, Australia, on tree cult in the prehistoric Aegean, Cyprus and Israel. I’m in Greece at the moment on a research trip investigating the depiction of ritual scenes involving trees on Minoan-style (Bronze Age Crete and Mycenaean Greece) gold rings and seal stones. In the last two days I’ve been fortunate to be able to study, first hand, some of the gold rings from the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. I’m also checking out some Mycenaean rural sanctuaries such as that of Apollo Maleatas at Epidauros and Athena Pronaia at Delphi. Then I’m going to Crete to do more research in the Heraklion museum and at archaeological sites. I’m going to end up in the UK where I will look at Cypriot cylinder seals, featuring ritual interaction with trees, at the British Museum and the Ashmolean. Also, at the latter, I’ll be looking at more Minoan gold rings. I’m focussing my PhD on this topic as part of a broader interest I have in the deification of aspects of the natural world.

What led you to study archaeology?

I have a degree in Fine Art from the 1990s, but I’ve been involved in modern Paganism since 1985. During my involvement with Paganism, as the years went by, and particularly in the early years of the 2000s after the publication in 1999 of British historian Ronald Hutton’s history of modern Pagan Witchcraft “The Triumph of the Moon”, I started to question the claims of historicity that Pagan leaders and authors were telling me (and everyone else). I went back to university in 2004 specifically in order to compare what modern Pagans were claiming about Paganism’s “ancientness” with what academic specialists in ancient religions had found. I came to realise that modern Paganism looks nothing like ancient versions. I was in the Classics and Archaeology department where I had done an interesting subject called “The Archaeology of Cult” in which I studied ancient Israelite religion, and I ended up doing my PhD with the lecturer from that course, Louise Hitchcock, who is an Aegean specialist.

You’re an active contributor to the international Pagan community: can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with Paganism (what is it for you?)

I started off in Paganism via Ceremonial Magick (Aleister Crowley), and then moved on to American-style Wicca (Starhawk). I’ve got interests in, and been through, several types of Paganism. I’m a Witch, I’ve been involved with idealistic “green” Pagan groups such as the Church of All Worlds, and am an initiate in the Ordo Templi Orientis among other things. I have a strong leaning toward Reconstructionist Paganism – the type of contemporary Paganism that strives to revive ancient Pagan religions though a close adherence to ancient textual and archaeological sources, but I see good points in modern or ‘pop’ Paganism; its ecological and feminist aspects particularly. In the early 2000s I became aware of the academic study of Paganism and found it so interesting that I had to make an effort to educate myself (by going back to university) so I could participate in this international scholarly scene. I guess my primary interest in that regard is in “Reception Studies”, specifically the reception of the ancient world by modern Pagans.

How do you perceive Pagan deities? Are they personified archetypes, energies, real, or something else?

I suppose these days I would go with the “personification of natural and cultural forces” explanation. In my deepest heart, I prefer a non-anthropomorphic vision of “deities”, seeing them as components of the physical world such as land, plants, sea, weather, sky, stars, so in that case I suppose that could be considered “atheistic” – but when interacting with those deities I do tend to put an anthropomorphic “guise” on them and act like they can converse with me, or at least hear me. It’s probably just easier to relate to something that looks relatable.

What is the field of Pagan studies?

Well, I think Pagan Studies is an interdisciplinary approach to studying modern manifestations of Paganism. It tends to consist of scholars who study Paganism from within disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, religious studies, theology, history and archaeology. Many Pagan Studies scholars are Pagan themselves, others are not Pagan but study communities of practitioners in an ethnographic capacity, sometimes for decades.

Why should someone get involved with Pagan Studies? What can it offer practising Pagans, and what can it offer the general academic field?

From an academic viewpoint, I simply think modern Paganism is a fascinating topic. I’m not sure why other academics study it, I guess they all have their own different reasons depending on their disciplines, but for me it is about investigating the ways in which the past − the ancient world − has been received and interpreted in the present, because Paganism is very much concerned with the past and gaining legitimacy and authenticity from having a past, plus the past is where we tend to get a lot of our inspirational material such as mythology and traditional ritual practices. For Pagans themselves, I think the academic study of Paganism provides another view on what we do, another angle that we might not see from the “inside” of Paganism so to speak, and that is enlightening. In fact, I think Pagan Studies can function as a stimulus to modern Paganism, challenging us to be better, more creative and also more rigorous in our use of source material (as modern Paganism is still “under construction”, it’s a work in progress).

What are the most serious issues facing the international (or individual) Pagan communities?

I suppose it is the fact that to a large extent, contemporary Pagans are still either considered illicit, weird, or both. Centuries of bad press by the Christian Church(es) has made Paganism seem equal to demon-worship in the eyes of many, and this reputation is hard to shake. The Pagan deities are not taken seriously as gods by the more established monotheistic religions – and hence by broader society – and Pagan religious practice is considered less important than the rites and rituals of more established religions. This can have negative consequences for “out” Pagans in regards to employment, child custody, being taken seriously, and reputation in general, so it is understandable that many Pagans do not broadcast their religious affiliation. And it is simply not fair (!) as it is no secret that there are many religions that are in fact much more irrational, intolerant and violent than Paganism which, although inspired by the past, tends to be very ethical and progressive.

In Greece, Pagan Studies are practically unheard of, but there is a small, if fragmented Pagan community. How do you think awareness of the field of Pagan Studies might benefit this community?

I think it could work both ways: for Pagan Studies scholars, the Greek Pagan scene is a fascinating pool of study material that is as yet untapped; while for the actual Hellenic Pagans themselves, as with any modern Pagans, I think the respectful study of their religious practices by Pagan Studies scholars can provide Hellenic Pagans with another view of themselves – this would possibly bring to light some aspects that practitioners were not aware of and which they might like or dislike, or which they might want to cherish, or change. In any event, I think academic study of contemporary Greek Paganism would be invigorating for both parties. I’d personally like to see Classics and/or archaeology scholars looking at modern Hellenic Paganism.

For someone who is both a practising Pagan and an academic, how do they strike a balance between a personal faith and academic study of that faith?

I’m not entirely sure, as I don’t tend to have to do that. I think it is mainly the anthropologists and sociologists who have specific methodologies worked out regarding their academic researching self and their participant-observer self. It probably depends on how much they are actually spiritually invested in Paganism. And of course, some would say that Paganism is not so much about “belief” or “faith” but about ritual practice − although that implies belief in the ritual’s efficacy. I think regardless of their own personal beliefs, professional scholars tend to adopt methodological atheism in their written material for their academic peers, but not always – Graham Harvey, Jenny Blain and Doug Ezzy have challenged the traditional position of scholars doing participant-observation of religion, specifically Paganism, in their book “Researching Paganisms” (Altamira Press, 2004).

Many non-Greek Hellenic Pagans and occultists tend to use Greek terminology in their rituals. How important is it, do you think, to learn ancient Greek when performing such rituals? Is it enough to simply repeat the ritual without learning the language as a whole?

Ideally, I would say that if you are a Hellenic Pagan – or any sort of Reconstructionist Pagan – that you need to make an effort to learn the language that the ancient texts are written in, if you are going to use them. If you are a Neo-Pagan incorporating Classical deities in your essentially eclectic ritual structure and practice however, then I would suggest that it is still desirable, but less essential. Pagan Reconstructionism is specifically about using ancient sources and while you can use them in translation (and have to if you can’t read the ancient languages), ideally you should learn the language, otherwise you really do not know what you are saying. I am not suggesting that you do not participate in Hellenic Reconstructionist rituals if you cannot read the language, and if you have to use a modern language such as English, then so be it, I repeat however, ideally, you’d learn ancient Greek.

The question of authenticity often arises when talking about Paganism, as there are those that claim that modern Pagan interpretations are no more than modern imaginings of ancient practices, and others for whom this is either insignificant or untrue. What do you consider authentic, and how important do you think it is for modern Pagan practices to be faithful to original sources?

Authenticity is a contentious topic in Paganism. I think with Neo-Paganism − derived as it is from Wicca which dates to the 1950s and which itself is derived from late 19th and early 20th century folklore, anthropology, and attempted histories of the Witch Trials – because it is contemporary in that it has an ecological and feminist bent, but looks to ancient material for inspiration, questions of historical authenticity should be abandoned. Religious authenticity on the other hand, is something that ought to be striven for. Modern Paganism does not need to have an unbroken historical lineage – and we know it doesn’t – so let’s concentrate on religious, social and cultural experiences rather than “authenticity” (which is probably what a lot of Pagans uninterested in “lineage” are doing anyway). That is not to say that Neo-Pagans should not use historical material for inspiration, of course they should if they want. When it comes to Pagan Reconstructionism on the other hand, its whole purpose is to reconstruct ancient Pagan religions, so historical authenticity is important and deviation from that – as in the case of “unsubstantiated personal gnosis” − needs to be clear.

What is the difference between Wicca and Paganism?

Wicca is a form of religious witchcraft founded in Britain in the 1950s. It is based on the now out-dated idea that those people persecuted in the European Witch Trials, between the 15th and 18th centuries, were members of an ancient Pagan religion. Wicca is characterised by membership in a group, or “coven”, entry to which is via initiation, performance of rituals coinciding with lunar and solar cycles, male and female deities that represent aspects of the natural world, and the practise of magic. Paganism on the other hand, is a larger category and can range from modern- or “Neo”-Paganism, which looks very much like Wicca and is derived from it, to Pagan Reconstructionism, the attempt to revive ancient Pagan religions in a historically correct manner, as far as possible, based on material from ancient texts, iconography and archaeology.

Wicca is quite popular in Greece, but there is a distinct lack of bibliography and interpretations tend to be quite eclectic. What would you advise people who want to learn more about it?

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of books on Wicca that are easily available. Plus the internet is absolutely saturated with it and it is very easy to find information on it. Personally, I would advise people to investigate historically attested types, or reports, of witchcraft alongside an investigation into modern Wicca. I guess I’m suggesting a “Reconstructionist” approach based on historically authentic sources – although there is also a lot of great modern material out there as well – so that you can be aware of the actual histories of witchcraft practices and not rely on the often inaccurate “history” as found in many modern “How To” books on Wicca.

In Greece, the terms “Pagan” and “Paganism” are seen as pejorative due to the way they are used by the Church. Hellenic Pagans tend to prefer the expression “Ethnikoi” or ethnic Hellenes. Why have the terms “Pagan” and “Paganism” become so popular abroad, and how is Paganism defined?

Pagan is one of those pejorative words that have been reclaimed along with Witch and Heathen. I suppose it is because paganus is the Latin term for “country dweller” and when modern Wiccan-inspired Paganism started to coalesce, it was – and still is – characterised by seasonal festivals based on the solar cycles, moon rituals, respect for the earth and its non-human inhabitants such as animals and plants, has deities that represent natural forces, promotes acceptance of the body and sexuality, and living life in the here and now, and “Paganism” seemed a good description of this kind of religious expression. In addition, Wicca was thought, back then, to be a suppressed and persecuted form of Paganism and there was the idea – still prevalent in many Wiccan groups – that “Wiccans” or Witches are the “clergy” of Paganism and “Pagans” are the laity, but this is actually not correct – ancient Paganism was not facilitated by “Witches” but by Priests and Priestesses and people did their own domestic observance as well. While Hellenic Pagans, as well as other types of Reconstructionist Pagans, may use different terms for themselves, sometimes this is because they are embarrassed by the “creative” (inaccurate) use of history and perceived New Agey approach to the deities perceived as characteristic of Neo-Paganism – and which Reconstructionists seek to distance themselves from. Although “Paganism” is a general term used to describe non-Abrahamic and indigenous polytheistic religions, so it is applicable to Reconstructionists as well.