Thursday, 21 August 2014

An Interview with Shai Feraro

Hello and welcome to Albion Calling; this week I have Shai Feraro, a doctoral student at Israel's Tel Aviv University with me (check out his profile). Feraro is a historian by training who is currently exploring the role of women in the British magical and Pagan subcultures from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth-century, and has also edited a recent issue of the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review devoted to the alternative spiritualities of his home country. We discuss such issues as the place of Paganism in Israel, the impact of the academic boycott, and the international development of the growing field of Pagan studies.

Image provided by Shai Feraro.

EDW: Your main area of research has been in the field of Pagan studies, an interdisciplinary approach to the academic study of contemporary Paganism. What was it that led you into studying this particular subject ? Do you have a personal background in the Israeli Pagan movement or are you, like myself, an interested outsider ?

SF: My interest in Paganism, both in general and in Israel in particular, is that of a sympathetic outsider. How did I come across it? Well, it is a long-but-interesting story (I think), with several twists and turns: In the latter half of 2008 I was finishing my Bachelor's Degree in History and Asian Studies at the University of Haifa, and had made up my mind to start my Graduate studies there. I needed an idea for an exciting MA thesis. During this period I was playing a computer game called Return to Castle Wolfenstein, in which you play an American operative who tries to stop the Nazis from raising demons to their cause etc. It then suddenly hit me that this game, coupled with movies such as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark where merely echoes in popular culture for the very real fascination of some important Nazi figures with Occult matters. I therefore decided to write a thesis on this subject, which, as I soon learned, was covered very well in books such as Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke's The Occult Roots of Nazism. Soon afterwards, however, I deserted the idea, because the prospect of devoting at least two years to the study of the German language before even starting my research into the relevant primary sources was too daunting for me. I then decided to switch my fascination with the Occult to an English-speaking country - a move which allowed me to begin my research right away. 

With that vague concept in mind, I went to England in order to clear my head before the start of my MA studies. While trekking in the Lake District, as part of the 192-mile Coast to Coast Walk, I underwent a deep and moving experience as I was travelling past the Helm Crag ridge and down to Grasmere village. A week and a half later, while in London, I visited the British Museum. After leaving the Museum, I decided to look for a nearby Tube station, and walked via Museum Street, where (surprise, surprise) I came across the famous Atlantis Bookshop, of which I had no prior knowledge. I stepped inside, and browsed through the various books on display. Before long I was exploring the shelves on 'Wicca, Witchcraft & Paganism' and on 'Women's Spirituality', excited as if I've found some long-lost treasure. I bought a few books, and started writing my MA thesis on the development of the American Feminist Spirituality Movement during the 1970s-1980s. 

Half way through writing my thesis I met the woman who would become my wife - Tom. We met through an online dating site called JDate (that's Jewish Date) after studying together in the same University department (Asian Studies) for 3 years and not knowing each other at all (I was in Chinese studies, she was in Japanese, two circles that hardly intermixed in that department for some reason). And so it happened that on our first date, while I was rambling on about my research into feminist Witchcraft, I mentioned Starhawk. Tom immediately stopped me and asked "How do you know Starhawk?". Shockingly I asked "wait... You know of Starhawk??? How?". "I have her books. I dabbled in Witchcraft when I was a teenager". Later on, when I decided to start researching - independently from my PhD - the Israeli Pagan community, it was Tom who first introduced me to some of her friends from the Witchcraft bookshop in which she worked as a teenager. I'm ever grateful to Israeli Pagans for accepting me so wholeheartedly into their gatherings and rituals, for opening up their hearts to me during interviews and unofficial conversations, and for the deep and profound friendships I developed with some of them. While my MA and PhD research deal with Contemporary Paganism from an historical angle, researching Israeli Paganism gave me the opportunity to experience Paganism as a lived religion and social movement. This is something I could never have experienced strictly as an historian. 

EDW: You are currently engaged in a PhD at Tel Aviv University. Could you tell us more about this current doctoral research project and its findings ?  

SF: My PhD dissertation deals with women's involvement in British Magical and Pagan groups, c. 1888 - c. 1988. I start by touching upon Helena Blavatsky, who - unlike the Victorian Spiritualists - was considered a spiritual leader in her own right instead of a mere vessel for the channeling of spirits. Then I move on to Anna Kingsford and her Hermetic Society, followed by a discussion of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the women who played important roles within it. I then move on to Aleister Crowley's writings during the Edwardian and Interwar periods, coupled with Dion Fortune's 1930s novels, followed by Gerald Gardner and the early Wiccans of the 1950s-1960s.  As mentioned above, I wrote my MA thesis on the effects of radical and cultural feminisms on the formation and ideology of the American Feminist Spirituality movement during the 1970s-1980s. I started my PhD in the hope of understanding how these developments influenced British Wiccans and other Pagans during the same period. Scholars of contemporary Paganism agree that Wiccan practices and ideology were influenced by Second Wave feminism as a result of Wicca’s “emigration” to the United States. The influence of radical and spiritual feminist ideas on 1970s–1980s British Paganism, however, is an under-researched area. A commonly held view (to which Ronald Hutton’s chapter on “Uncle Sam and the Goddess” in his The Triumph of the Moon [1999] is a notable exception) is that  British Wicca was not affected by feminist developments in the United States, and radical (and spiritual) feminism’s influence on the British Pagan scene during this period was negligible. My dissertation will be the first to examine this subject and focus on it from an historical perspective. The research shows that contrary to prevailing views, contact and cross-fertilization between British Wiccans and Goddess Feminists did exist in said period and contributed to the shaping of contemporary British Paganism. I hope I managed to give a taste of this recently when I presented a case study focusing on Goddess Feminist Monica Sjöö in which I analyzed her role as a bridge between Radical and Spiritual Feminism and British Wiccans during the 1970s-1980s. 

EDW: Your research has examined contemporary Paganism not only in Israel but also in the United States and United Kingdom. What is it about the Israeli Pagan scene which differentiates it from that elsewhere in the (Western) world ? 

SF: I have found that while there are many similarities between Israeli and overseas Pagans, Israeli Pagans cannot help but be shaped by the country's unique politics of identity as the nation state of the Jewish people. While Israeli Pagans long for the opportunity to come out of the so-called 'broom closet', they constantly fear the perceived negative consequences of such an exposure and see the bond between (Jewish) religion and the state in Israel as a main factor in the intolerance and even persecution that they expect to encounter from the government and from Ultra-Orthodox Jews. In Israel, one can be recognized as either religious, secular or spiritual (meaning generic New-Age with Judaic overtones, which can be termed Jew-Age), but there is no room for Israeli Pagans to describe themselves as religious and at the same time not Jewish. Ergo, an Israeli Pagan of Jewish descent that takes his/her religion seriously and asserts her now non-Jewish religious identity simply has no place in Israeli society's religious discourse. Indeed, Marianna Ruah-Midbar and Adam Klin Oron have noted recently that "Upon its arrival in Israel, the New Age encounters a local characteristic substantially different from those prevalent in other European societies, which are Christian in origin". In Israeli society, Jewish identity is considered to be a privileged one.  In my articles I try to understand what happens when Israelis of Jewish descent choose to shed this privilege-laden identity in favor of one which is seen as inferior (if not illegitimate) in the eyes of mainstream Israeli society. 

One might expect that Israel's different climate to that of Northern and Western Europe (while in Britain winter connotes with death, in the Middle East it is a time of rejuvenation) and the availability of a local Canaanite pantheon to work with, will push the majority of Israeli Pagans towards Canaanite Reconstructionism. In reality, while some in the community are interested in Canaanite deities and sometimes try to adapt the Wiccanate template to local climate and mythologies, very few choose to commit to Canaanite Reconstructionism as their main spiritual path. While some modern and contemporary Western European nations, such as Britain, Ireland or Iceland have embraced their 'Celtic' or Nordic past and utilized figures such as the Druids as focal points for the kindling of patriotic sentiments, the situation in modern Israeli society is a mirrored image. Israeli Jews – whether secular or religious – are not brought up to feel any sort of kinship with the tribes and nations which inhabited historical Canaan. On the contrary, the extinction of the Canaanites by the Israelites is celebrated in Bible lessons administered in the country's formal education system as a triumph of Jewish monotheism over idolatry, witchcraft and paganism. This is further illustrated in the fact that while a cultural and ideological movement dubbed "Canaanism" by its detractors did climax during the 1940s in British Mandate Palestine, it was considered incompatible with mainstream Zionism and declined after the founding of the state of Israel. Following a recent visit to Israel, Ronald Hutton noted that "Israeli Pagans are clearly at present in a double bind, whereby if they follow non-Israeli traditions such as Wicca and Druidry, they are accused of importing alien beliefs, while if they revive aspects of the ancient native religion, they are accused of bringing back the ancient evil against which true religion originally defined itself". 

EDW: Something that I think is particularly notable is that you are of course a male who is studying forms of feminist spirituality; as far as I am aware, you are the first to do so within the field of Pagan studies. That, no doubt, has both advantages and disadvantages. Do you feel that this has impacted your research in any way ? 

SF: Well, my research into the experiences of Israeli Pagan women in Israeli Women's Spirituality festivals and workshops was obviously shaped by my inability to venture into festival and workshop ground as participant-observer. This is something that I, of course, totally understand, and I support the need for 'women-only' spaces (this is not to suggest that my support is in any way needed or relevant to the women active in these spaces). The real problem was that participant-observer research into these venues by Israeli female academics simply does not exist either. I therefore decided to write an exploratory article, which will focus almost entirely on the interviews I carried out with Israeli Pagan women, and which will serve at the same time as a call for female Israeli scholars to carry out the studies needed in order to establish the field in Israeli academia. However, I think that my position as a male might have been a silver lining too, as some of my interviewees might have found it easier to share their criticisms of the Israeli Women's Spirituality scene with a male than with a female researcher. Although normally people voice their criticism only inside the group, a talk with an outsider (who - being a male - could never take part in the movement himself) can sometimes allow a member to talk about things she would never dare to share with her fellows. 

Now, as an historian in training I have found that being a male studying feminist spiritualities - which is what I've been doing in my MA thesis (and to some degree in my PhD dissertation) - isn't necessarily problematic. Meaning, that as long as you try to provide an historical analysis of feminist spirituality and its sources of inspiration instead of presuming to write how one should 'do' feminist spirituality, I don't see a complication. Difficulties could still arise even when conducting research into books and archives, though: in my research into the Women's Liberation Movement in Britain (as part of my PhD work) there was a specific archive that maintained a policy that some WLM magazines which were published as 'women only' during the 1970s-1980s will remain sealed from me. I of course respected their decision, but came to the conclusion that a minimum historical distance already exists, and thereafter read these magazines in a different archive which had no such restrictions policy.

There is at least one other male researcher who dedicated his scholarly attention to Goddess Spirituality. This is Paul Reid-Bowen, who wrote a PhD dissertation on Goddess thealogy (supervised by Melissa Raphael and later published as Goddess as Nature: Towards a Philosophical Thealogy by Ashgate). Writing about thealogy can be a tricky business for a male scholar, and is loaded with controversy. Reid-Bowen is of course aware of this. See his chapter "Reflexive Transformations: Research Comments on Me(n), Feminist Philosophy and the Thealogical Imagination" in Ursula King and Tina Beattie's Gender, Religion and Diversity: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (London: Continuum, 2005). Writing from intellectual history and discourse analysis angles, I have been spared facing the dilemmas Paul faces as a male thealogian.

EDW: Recently, you have taken on the mantle of Special Editor for volume 5, issue 1 of the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review (ASRR), a peer-reviewed academic journal devoted to new religious movements. This particular issue is devoted to alternative spiritual movements in Israel, and contains both an introduction and a research paper by yourself. How did this opportunity arise and what do you hope will be the impact of this special issue ? 

SF: I met James R. Lewis - editor of the ASRR - twice when he participated in the yearly Israeli Conferences for the Study of Contemporary Religion and Spirituality. My role as conference coordinator gave us the opportunity to chat and I told Jim about my research on Israeli Pagans. This led me to submit an article to the ASRR on the experiences of Israeli Pagan women at local women's spirituality festivals and workshops. Jim then said I should try and put together a special issue on contemporary Israeli spirituality. I'm glad to have been given this opportunity, learning the challenges and gains of the editing process so early in the academic game. This issue is only the second of its kind to have been published so far. Israel is home to a bustling scene of New Age and alternative spiritualities, with only a fraction of these represented in this special issue. Global New Age discourse is thus adapted in many cases into an Israeli 'Jew Age' through the use of Jewish symbols and practices. This 'Jew Age' spirituality is a direct outcome of Israel's unique and complicated politics of identity as the nation state of the Jewish people. The articles in this issue can therefore supply researchers with a glimpse into the ways in which New Age and alternative spiritualities – produced in Western countries with a predominantly Protestant or secular culture – transform and adapt themselves in Israel. 

EDW: Have you got any other projects on the horizon that we should be keeping an eye out for ? 

SF: I still have several more articles I wish to publish on the Israeli Pagan community before trying to write a book on Israeli Pagans. These articles will focus on the Mabon community festival (now held for the 4th year in a row), on the emergence of Canaanite Reconstructionism among Israeli Pagans, on Israeli Pagan pilgrims-tourists to Glastonbury and other Pagan sites in the UK, and on findings from the Israeli Pagan Survey I initiated. This survey was modeled almost in its entirety on Helen Berger's Pagan Census Revisisted, and Helen and I are also working together on comparing the information from both of these surveys. I also hope to research the Northern Traditions, and particularly the adherents' views on feminism and gender issues during the 1970s-1980s. 

In my Postdoctoral research, however, I'm going to focus on a totally different subject. For a while now I felt torn between my wish to continue writing about Paganism in my Post-Doc as well, and between my hopes for securing an academic post after finishing the Postdoctoral project. I have thought long and hard about this, and came to the conclusion that while I love this field of study and plan to continue working on it for many years to come, my Post-Doc project itself must involve a subject completely unrelated to Paganism or contemporary spirituality in general. This will hopefully improve my relevancy when I apply for academic posts in the future. I hope to focus on the influence of American feminist writings and American expatriates living in Britain on the development of the Women's Liberation Movement in Britain during the late 1960s - late 1980s. This will be done through archival research and oral history, while emphasizing the plurality of the movement, its various strands and divisions. With any luck I'll be starting my post-doc in the UK during autumn 2015, and we'll be able to find the time to sit and talk shop over a pint (or several). 

EDW: When notifying other scholars of your recent ASRR issue over at the Academic Study of Magic list serve, you faced calls from one anonymous figure who suggested that your publications should be ignored as part of the wider academic boycott of Israel that various activists have called for as a response to the Israeli government's policies toward Gaza and the West Bank. That particular campaign is a very contentious one among us academics here in Britain; on a personal level I think that there is a cogent argument behind the boycott although at the same time I am unsure whether it is either ethical or effective to single out academics and thus do not subscribe to it. However, I'd be really interested in hearing your personal take on it; as an Israeli academic have you felt that this boycott has caused problems in interacting with the international academic community ?

SF: The incident you are referring to was the first time I experienced the implications of the boycott movement on a very personal level. I had heard about it before, of course, but never encountered any problem during the many conferences in which I presented my papers during the last two years in places such as Britain, the United States, Ireland and Sweden. Very few of the academics I met during these conferences brought up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in our conversations, and for those who did - it was probably the first opportunity for them to hear about it from the point of view of an Israeli who is not Anti/Post-Zionist. I thought that posting information about ASRR's Israel Issue during the latest Gaza conflict might incur a negative reaction by someone, and was therefore not surprised - only a little disappointed. Well, a little is an understatement. I spent long months working on this special issue, and actually felt hurt and outraged at the prospect of it being banned by my colleagues around the world. 

As I wrote in reaction to the boycott call by that anonymous subscriber, I think the academic boycott of Israel is truly misguided, assuming that its goal is to help bring peace to the Middle East and aid to the foundation of a Palestinian state next to Israel. You see, in Israel, us academics usually come from the left side of the political map, and are one of the forces calling for peace and a two-state solution, with an independent Palestine next to Israel. This is not to suggest that there are no right-wing scholars in Israeli universities, because this is obviously not the case, but still, the "academic=leftist" paradigm is so fixated in the public mind here, that a certain right-wing group has published a report which stated that (in their view) there is a significant gap between the Israeli public's views on nationality and Zionism and the intellectual discourse promoted by Political Science departments in Israeli universities. This group, which is active in university campuses here, also maintains lists of Israeli academics that they deem to be 'too leftist'.  It is so sad that while many in the extreme right in Israel view us as 'traitors', some of our brothers and sisters to the academic profession from abroad try to boycott us, thereby actually silencing a major voice for change within Israel. 

Furthermore, it seems that these calls for academic boycott are highly selective. I don't hear of anyone who calls for an academic boycott of Israel as a so-called "Apartheid State" (a claim which is simply false) while at the same time calling for an academic boycott against actual dictatorships such as Syria (its dictator, President Assad, has massacred close to 200,000 of his own citizens during the last two years [EDW: with respect to Shai, I am unsure as to the accuracy of this number or that the blame for the horrors of the Syrian Civil War can solely be placed on Assad and his regime]), or countries like Saudi Arabia (where women are stoned to death if it is suspected that they committed adultery) and Iran. A few days ago I googled "academic boycott" and added Israel and China to the search. It turns out that there are more than twice the web pages (572,000 to 228,000) mentioning an academic boycott of Israel then those mentioning an academic boycott of China. Something just doesn't add up here. Well, it actually does: obviously it is much easier signaling out a small country like Israel than rich and/or huge countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and China, who control so many assets in the UK and contribute large sums of money to academic institutions there. 

EDW: Where do you see the future of research into Israeli Paganism heading in the coming decades? Connected to this, what do you see as the future for the field of Pagan studies more widely, both in Israel and across the world ?

SF: It is hard to say. My studies into Israeli Paganism were by no means the first. An interesting and pioneering MA thesis was written by Rinat Korvet as early as 2008 on Internet Usage Patterns among Israeli Neo-Pagan Believers. She presented her findings during the 1st Israeli Conference for the Study of Contemporary Spirituality back in 2009, but later chose not to follow an academic career as a researcher. My colleague, Orly Salinas Mizrahi, published an MA thesis on Processes of Identity Formation and Belief Alteration in Israeli Pagans in 2010, but subsequently felt that its contents were too sensitive and might be used to 'out' - or even physically or financially hurt - Israeli Pagans by local fundamentalists, and ordered her university library to restrict all access to it. She is now in the final stages of working on a PhD dissertation on seasonal and life-cycle ritual amongst Israeli Pagans, which will be accessed freely by those interested in reading it. Orly however has no interest in an academic career as well, and has written these works after already retiring from a career in design.

This leaves me as the only researcher of Israeli Pagans who is hell bent on making it up the academic ladder (my colleague Hili Ratzon, a graduate student, is also writing on Paganism, but mostly on overseas Pagans). I've been trying to work towards the development and legitimization of the field in Israel to the best of my abilities as a humble PhD student with no funds or academic political power at my disposal. In addition to publishing articles on the subject, for the past four years I've made sure to organize sessions on Contemporary Paganism as part of the Israeli Conference for the Study of Contemporary Religion and Spirituality. I hope these will help establish Pagan Studies as a legitimate field among Israeli scholars and students of contemporary spirituality. So far there are no established scholars here who take up the subject, but there has been some activity on the grassroots level. In recent years I have been approached by several students who wanted to write seminary papers on the subject, and I hope some of them might decide one day to proceed to writing theses and dissertations on Paganism in Israel and overseas. I'm focusing all my energy in maximizing my (slim) chances of securing an academic post in a local university. This will greatly enhance my ability to make Pagan studies visible in Israeli academia. 

Zooming out to a more global view, I think that Pagan Studies is still in a very young and fragile state. We need more young researchers with permanent academic posts, in order to make up for the retirement of those who pioneered the field, which will become more noticeable in the next decade. Keeping The Pomegranate active, publishing books and anthologies and holding conferences and sessions is important, as well as making the best of critiques of our fledgling academic field. However there are some important areas in which we still fall behind - such as the founding of academic departments and/or research centers, as well as the forming of a learned society. When attending conferences and workshops set up by the Association for the Study of Esotericism (ASE) in the United States, and especially the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE) and its related networks in Israel and in other parts of the world, I sometimes can't help but wonder - what are we [as Pagan studies scholars] missing? Perhaps we should have more chats with our Western Esotericist 'cousins' and try to work out how to emulate their success in recent years and ensure the growth and proliferation of Pagan Studies for the years to come. 

EDW: Thank you so much Shai for what has been a fascinating insight into your work and the place of Paganism in Israel. Best of luck with the future, and I look forward to the prospect of you moving here to London!

Monday, 18 August 2014

A Call for Papers: "The Owls Are Not What They Seem: Essays on the Mysterious World of Twin Peaks''

I've recently come across this call for papers issued by Dr. Jenny Butler of University Cork College, who was of course interviewed here at Albion Calling back in January. It is for a proposed volume titled The Owls Are Not What They Seem: Essays on the Mysterious World of Twin Peaks, which - as a massive fan of the cult television series - I must admit to being very excited about!

Essays are invited which examine themes of the mysterious and weird in the TV series
Twin Peaks and David Lynch’s follow-up film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Almost a quarter of a century since it was first aired, Twin Peaks has a special place in television history and an enduring mystique that has resulted in a cult following that is growing even today. The Owls Are Not What They Seem: Essays on the Mysterious World of Twin Peaks is a collection that proposes to explore those strange and uncanny aspects of the show that give it such lasting appeal. Such analyses will add new perspectives and insights into the longevity of the show’s impact on popular culture as well as expand our scholarly understanding of the Twin Peaks phenomenon.

Topics could include, but are not limited to: Occult and mystical symbology; Dreams and vision; Liminal spaces and binaries; Otherworldly and supernatural influences; Death and dying; Religion and/or spirituality; Paranormal ability; Fairytale motifs; Twin Peaks tourism (e.g. themed restaurants), fan culture and memorabilia. Essays are invited from scholars in the disciplines of folkloristics, cultural studies, study of religions, film studies, philosophy, psychology, and related disciplines. Cross-disciplinary analysis is welcome.

Proposals should take the form of an approximately 500-word abstract, a provisional title, as well as a short biography (50-100 words). All proposals must be received via email by October 31, 2014. The word count of essays accepted for inclusion in the collection should be between 3,500 and 4000 words. Please send all proposals and questions to the editor, Dr Jenny Butler at and cc. to

Thursday, 14 August 2014

New publication: Two book reviews in the latest volume of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies

Just a quick update to advertise the release of volume 15 of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, which appeared online over at the journal's website earlier this week. Regular readers of Albion Calling will be aware that The Pomegranate is one of my favourite peer-reviewed journals, constituting the only such academic outlet devoted to the field of Pagan studies, and that as such I have been a very regular contributor to it over the past few years. The Pom, as it is affectionately known to myself and various others, has unfortunately had to face some delays over the past few years (which explains why the current volume is dated to "2013") and as a result this one is a bumper-issue, with two issues combined into the same volume. From the looks of the contents (available here) there is some great stuff in here, from research articles on gender in Russian Rodnoverie to theoretical discussions on the field, and I'm really looking forward to the release of the print edition. 

On a more personal point I'd like to highlight that this current volume contains not one but two distinct book reviews authored by yours truly. The first (here) constitutes my critical analysis of Pop Pagans, an academic anthology edited by Donna Weston and Andy Bennett which explores the intersection between Pagan religions and popular music. The second (here) is a dual-review, in that it reviews two books published in the last few years exploring one of twentieth-century Britain's most intriguing figures, Aleister Crowley, a Pagan occultist who founded the new religious movement of Thelema in 1904. The books in question are Tobias Churton's Aleister Crowley: The Biography, and Henrik Bogdan and Martin P. Starr's academic anthology on Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism. Thanks to Equinox Publishing, who bring us The Pomegranate, both reviews are available online for free and I have uploaded PDF copies to my account, which I welcome you to check out!

Friday, 8 August 2014

An Interview with Dr. Ian Evans

Today here at Albion Calling I am very fortunate to have Dr. Ian Evans with me from all the way over in Australia. Dr Evans is an expert not only in his nation's architectural heritage but has also completed a doctorate focused on the enigmatic subject of deliberately concealed objects in Australian buildings - shoes, dead cats, and other such items placed in the roofs and walls of buildings with magical intent. He tells us more about the fascinating way in which these forms of British folk magic were carried to Australia and how they came to be established in this far away colony.

EDW: You are widely known in Australia as an architectural historian and heritage preservation campaigner, having published at least fifteen books on the subject since the late 1970s. Your approach to the study of folk magical items therefore emerges from this particular background, and it would be interesting to learn a bit more about these formative influences and how you came to take an interest in such things.

A woman's shoe from the 1920s; found in a house in
Burwood, Sydney. The manner in which it was concealed
suggested a link to the electricity supply. Image provided
by Dr Evans.
IE: I spent many years researching the historical background to the houses constructed in Australia after the arrival of the Europeans in 1788. Much of my research was carried out in the Mitchell and State Libraries in Sydney where a great many of the 19th and early 20th century books and catalogues used by British architects, builders and tradesmen were held. In doing so, I was able to understand how they had worked and the materials and techniques they had employed. I wondered sometimes about the lives and thoughts of the people who, over many years, occupied the houses I visited. But there seemed to be no way to read their minds by contemplating the masonry, hardware, light fittings and decorative elements with which their houses had been constructed and furnished. So in the course of writing books on the history and conservation of old houses I spent many years inspecting them with not the faintest idea of the ancient ritual that had been practiced within many of them.

EDW: In 2010 you submitted your doctoral thesis on “Touching Magic: Deliberately Concealed Objects in Old Australian Houses and Buildings” at the University of Newcastle. It is now available to download for free over at your account. What led to your decision to embark on your dissertation and could you give my readers an overview of what it contained?

A convict's shirt concealed in a staircase
at Sydney's Hyde Park Barracks, which held
convicts from Britain.

Image provided by Dr. Evans.
IE: I had been aware of the practice of concealing objects, including shoes, cats, garments etc in buildings in England but had thought that this custom had died out by the 18th century. I had lunch with two colleagues in London in 2002 and when this subject was discussed was very surprised to learn that, far from dying out, objects had continued to be secreted in houses and other buildings throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. I was convinced that if the practice was continuing at the time that Australia was being colonized it had to have been carried to the Australian colonies as part of the cultural baggage of settlers, convicts and the military. Generations of historians had toiled away in the documents that record the history of Australia without becoming aware of the role of folk magic in the life of Australians. Focusing my research on the material culture of folk magic provided a new tool with which to reveal previously unknown information about Australians in the period from 1788 to about 1940.

I quickly realized that giving this finding an academic imprimatur would be essential to its acceptance. Accordingly, I made arrangements to work on a degree through the University of Newcastle, NSW. In this work I examined the role of cunning men and women in the UK, the European continent and in North America. I found that Australian concealments were quite common and comparatively easy to find and identify. The thesis contains a good deal of historical background, most of it set in the UK, as well as an inventory of finds of concealed objects in Australia. The thesis also touches upon the use of apotropaic marks such as hexafoils which were intended to deter evil spiritual beings from entering houses. These are fairly common in England and I’ve now discovered a number of them in Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland.

EDW: Research by individuals like the late Ralph Merrifield and Brian Hoggard (whom I interviewed here last August) has explored the archaeological evidence for folk magical practices in Britain, and so I'd be very interested to hear more about the similarities, and the differences, with those present in Australia?

IE: There are many similarities and some differences, mostly resulting from concealments made in the time before the European discovery of Australia. But the generalisation is true: the objects found in Australian buildings are largely the same as those that come to light in the UK, Europe and North America and which come from the same period in time. They are found in the same places in buildings and are the same kind of object, in particular shoes, garments, domestic artifacts and cats.

The concealment of shoes in buildings has provided us with a kind of catalogue of Australian footwear in the period before about 1935. Additionally, the degree of wear of many of the shoes of children, which were clearly passed on down through several members of a family, has suggested a level of poverty beyond that which generally applies today. The ritual has also given us the only surviving examples of the garments of convicts. So there are important social consequences of this ritual, reaching from the past to the present day and providing us with information and artifacts that are available nowhere else.

EDW: Over the past few decades, a small number of historians, namely Keith Thomas and Owen Davies, have examined the textual evidence for folk magic in British history, although I'm unsure as to whether anything similar has been done on the Australian evidence. Your work has been primarily archaeological in that it has focused on the evidence from material culture, but have you made use of historical documentation and if so, do the two sources accord with one another?

A dead cat concealed under the hallway of a house
constructed c.1910 in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville.
A deliberate concealment, it was probably placed there
by tradesmen. Image provided by Dr. Evans.
IE: The problem with this question, and it’s a really intriguing issue, is that there is no historical documentation about the folk magic ritual of concealing objects in buildings. It appears to have been a practice that was widely known but which, it seems, never entered the printed record. This is true not only of the UK but also North America and other places where this branch of folk magic was practiced. So, in Australia, there was nothing in the texts: no books, no memoirs, no journal articles. People appear to have been extremely reluctant to write about it. It was not until the early twentieth century that a couple of postcards were produced in which old boots were depicted as charms that would bring good luck. This seems to have been the first printed record alluding to the ritual. Other folk magic practices were widely known and were described in books and journals. But concealments were not noticed by folk magic researchers or historians who mostly conducted their research among written documents.

EDW: Your thesis focused on the period prior to 1930, but I wondered if you were aware of, or had at all looked at, evidence for such practices continuing beyond that. The impact of the Second World War might have sparked changes, and then from the 1950s you had forms of contemporary Pagan Witchcraft appearing in the country, both home-grown, as in the case of Rosaleen Norton, and imported, with the arrival of Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca. Furthermore, you also had the impact of widescale non-British migration to Australia, which may have brought new forms of vernacular magic to the country. Any thoughts or comments on this?

IE: The ritual that I’ve described in my thesis appears to have faded out in the 1930s, although it is possible that it continued on a smaller scale into the 1940s. And the end of this ritual marked the close of my research project. I have not pursued any of the matters that you raise in this question. My intent was to reveal an important aspect of life in Australia which was previously unknown. Concealments reveal the hopes and fears of people at a time when lives were often ended by illnesses and diseases which today are successfully treated by a visit to a general practitioner. Large families were common in the 19th century but parents knew that there was a good chance that not all of their children would survive to maturity. When a remote and seemingly uncaring God permitted children to die many people turned to magic and in this way took fate into their own hands. This was my particular interest and as it was a new field of research, with no documents available, it consumed all of my time and energy.

A pair of tradesman's shoes concealed beneath the panelling in the eleventh-floor boardroom of Melbourne's Manchester Unity Building, constructed in the Neo-Gothic style in 1932. Image provided by Dr. Evans. 
EDW: I've seen that your research has attracted interest from such press sources as the BBC World Service, so I wanted to ask you more about what the response to your research has been, both within academia and wider Australian society? Various academics who have studied the belief in magic within Western contexts have described facing cynicism from certain other academics who do not see such subjects as these being worthy of research; have you experienced anything like that? Conversely, have you encountered a lot of enthusiasm, for instance from contemporary magical practitioners or local history societies?

IE: I think there is a feeling among certain sections of academia that folk magic is of no consequence. This attitude ignores the fact that the widespread prevalence of magic rituals gives us insight into the thoughts of people whose lives were lived in fear of death. It is now clear that a great many houses contained, and still contain, concealments. Many of these objects, in particular shoes, can be dated, providing the opportunity to cross-reference finds with records of the occupants of buildings. In this way, patterns of belief can be revealed and in many cases traced back to areas of England from where so many of Australia’s settlers came. Thus, Australian research can illuminate those areas of England where magic thrived. I think it is not uncommon for academics in particular fields to lack interest in other areas of study. There has been some interest from local historical societies but not much contact from contemporary magical practitioners.

Children's boots from the 1880s found under the floor of a
house in Goulburn, New South Wales, now owned by
the National Trust. While pairs of shoes of rare, those of
children make up about half of known concealed footwear.
Image provided by Dr. Evans.
EDW: I always like to end my interviews here at Albion Calling by asking my interviewees where they see their field as progressing (or indeed regressing) in the coming decades. With that being the case, I'd like to ask you where to see the future of research into folk magic and its material evidence heading, both in Australia and elsewhere, in the near future?

IE: I think there is much more to discover in the years ahead. The research I’ve done merely opens a window on the past. There is much more to be seen through that window and many opportunities for further academic study to be conducted. This applies to the UK, North America, Australia and other countries where British people settled, carrying with them ancient beliefs that survived into the modern world. In Australia, people were driving motorcars and listening to jazz music on their radios while a ritual that stretched into the distant past was still being practiced. We need to know more about this. It’s a lost and secret history and it can only be revived by understanding the material culture that is locked away within the fabric of old houses and other buildings.

EDW: Thank you so much Dr. Evans for talking with me here at Albion Calling today. This is a fascinating subject and I hope that many of my readers will take the opportunity to read your PhD thesis, which you have kindly made available for free online. All the best for the future!

Monday, 28 July 2014

Obituary: Margot Adler (1946-2014)

It has recently been announced that Margot Adler, a prominent figure in the American Pagan community, passed away earlier today at the age of sixty-eight.  I did not know her personally, although was well aware of her through the reputation that she had attained by authoring Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today.  Named after the prominent Wiccan ritual, which itself took its name from an alleged witches' rite in the ancient Hellenic world, Drawing Down the Moon was a truly seminal and excellent piece of work, constituting a major cornerstone in the development of Pagan studies as a field of scholarly enquiry. First published in 1979 and subsequently witnessing re-publication in revised form in 1986, 1996, and 2006, Drawing Down the Moon documented the growth and diversity of contemporary Paganism in the United States, and remains essential reading for anyone dipping their toes into Pagan studies today.
My thoughts go out to Adler's friends and family at this difficult time.

Friday, 11 July 2014

The highs and lows of being a scholarly book reviewer...

Book reviewing has played a significant role in my academic trajectory so far. Over the past few years, I have published reviews of various tomes, both academic and non-academic, in such peer-reviewed journals as The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism, Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture, and the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review (I keep a list updated here). Book reviews appearing in such journals play an important role in the world of academia, allowing time-strapped scholars to gain a quick, critical overview of a publication that they themselves simply don't have the time to read. It also has many benefits for the reviewer themselves; not only do they gain copies of works that might otherwise be out of their price range (and let's face it, academia is hardly a path to prosperity), but it enables them to deepen their knowledge of a subject and develop skills in critical analysis that should aid them when they come to authoring their own papers and books. I would also argue that it can benefit a book's author too, as they can gain constructive criticism from their knowledgeable peers, thus enabling them to recognise any flaws that their work might suffer from and hopefully avoid them in future. At the same time, they can gain praise and acknowledgement for all their hard work, which is an emotional boost if nothing else. And then, of course, there are the benefits to the publisher, who are provided with extra publicity for their publication (and remember: all publicity is good publicity), which I would hope can encourage sales, either by individuals or, more likely, by university libraries.

Of course, this all means that the good book reviewer must do two distinct things. First, they must offer a thorough overview of the work in question, outlining its structure and its main arguments and/or findings. This is primarily for other scholars, who probably won't have the time to read every publication that is relevant to their field of research. Second, the reviewer must critique the work, focusing in particular on any perceived flaws that are present in its evidence and argument, as well as in other areas such as its readability and quality of prose. This is for both the wider scholarly community and the book's author themselves. When I do my reviewing, I always make a point of trying to highlight what I see as both good and bad aspects of every book. I never want to author a review that is wholly negative or solely positive; I'll either look for the silver lining in a grey sky or point out how a lovely sunny day could possibly be improved. Connected to this, I'll try to see a positive aspect to something that might otherwise be seen as a flaw; for instance, I might have criticisms of a book for not meeting the standards of academic scholarship, but then I'll try and turn that around by pointing out that this particular work would be good for a non-academic audience!

However, one of the more difficult aspects of book reviewing is receiving responses from the book's original authors. This has now happened to me twice, in each instance from authors who do not work within the confines of academia. This can be a really awkward and uncomfortable situation, particularly if the authors are not happy with my review. I have been fortunate in that one of those who contacted me was doing so in order to offer their thanks for what was a rather glowing review of their work; they also informed me that they fully accepted my few constructive criticisms. However, in the second instance, the response that I received was a little colder; this author did not accept the criticisms that I had expressed of their work, and sent me an email to inform me of this fact.  As a writer myself, I can certainly appreciate that we invest a lot of time and emotional attachment in our work, and thus it can be disheartening to learn of others' criticisms of it, particularly if we do not think that those criticisms are valid. However, it put me in a somewhat uncomfortable position; I've gone to the effort of reviewing the book (in a few cases having paid for the work myself in order to help a fledgling scholarly journal out), and have always sought to be honest and fair-minded, and thus don't particularly want to be drawn into a protracted argument or debate on the issue. Furthermore, when I signed up to review the work, I never expected to be put face-to-face (or email-to-email) with the author themselves; that wasn't part of the deal. But is it fair for an author to actively challenge, or even contact, the book reviewer ? In the wider sphere of academia, there seems to be an unspoken rule that it is largely deemed bad practice to do so, although should this apply to those operating within the realms of independent scholarship too ? I don't have answers to these questions, but I felt the personal need to air them nonetheless.

Book reviewing is part and parcel of academic life. Although I have encountered scholars who find it tedious and of little value, I have also met just as many who deem it an important opportunity, whether you are on the lower rungs of the academic ladder (like myself) or have worked yourself up into the higher echelons. For any aspiring academics and/or established independent scholars out there who might be reading this, I would certainly recommend the act of book reviewing to both improve their own literary and critical thinking skills as well as to contribute to the wider world of scholarship.

Monday, 7 July 2014

An Interview with Prof. Ronald Hutton

This week here at Albion Calling I have the very great honour of presenting an interview with a man whose work has inspired both myself and many, many others; Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol in southwest England. One of Britain's foremost historians, his prodigious scholarly output has ranged from the tumultuous events of seventeenth-century England to the pre-Christian belief systems of the British Isles, and from Western understandings of Siberian "shamanisms" to the early history of the new religious movement commonly known as Wicca. The author of at least fifteen books and many other papers and book chapters, he has also found the time to present a number of documentaries and a recent television series on Britain's lesser-known museums, as well as serving a term as a Commissioner of English Heritage. In previous interviews conducted with Necropolis Now (here and here) he has discussed his research and relationship with the contemporary Pagan movement but here offers us a fascinating overview into his wider life and career.

EDW: At times in pieces that you have written, especially one of the essays in
Witches, Druids and King Arthur, you have referred briefly to your upbringing and its influence on your later work. Would you be prepared to enlarge on that subject here?

RH: Yes. I was brought up by my mother, after my father died when I was a small child. She was a delightful and admirable person, of whom I was very fond, but also rather unworldly, and in increasingly fragile health. As a result, I spent most of my formative years trying to support and preserve her, a struggle which I finally lost as she died when I was a student. One of her most significant influences on me was that she was herself a Pagan, of a recognisable Victorian and Edwardian kind. She was deeply influenced by the Greek and Roman classics, regarded the Olympian deities as the natural divinities of the world, had a sense of a single archaic mother goddess as standing behind them, and felt an immanent divinity in nature. She never practised any acts of worship or other rites, and her attitudes were entirely literary; and indeed there was a large nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature to support them. My affection for them, and for her, gave me a sympathy for Pagans of the mid and late twentieth century kind, such as Wiccans, when I encountered them from my teens onward. It also, of course, left me with a knowledge and affection for the Victorian and Edwardian literature which had inspired her. More generally, my relationship with my mother gave me a great liking for women and a preference for their company. It also left me without any of three great formative influences which defined the attitudes of my friends: Christianity, patriarchy and parent-child conflict. As a result I lack a lot of the instinctual assumptions and responses manifested by most of my generation, which has both advantages and disadvantages for a writer. 

EDW: Having obtained a BA and MA in History from Cambridge University’s Pembroke College and then a DPhil in the subject from Oxford University’s St John’s College, you went on to an Oxford fellowship at Magdalen College and then permanent employment at the University of Bristol in 1981, starting off as a Lecturer and subsequently working your way up to a Readership and finally a Professorship. Was the academy something that you had wanted to be a part of from youth, or was this desire only a later emergence? What, in particular, were the formative influences that led you in this particular direction?

RH: I always wanted to get to university, because that was the gateway to a well-paid job, for somebody with no family contacts in any occupation. Cambridge was the best for somebody growing up, as I did, in the east of England. My father’s death and my mother’s ill health meant that money was tight, and so I had to work my way up through the state school system, step by step, eventually winning a scholarship to Cambridge when I was seventeen. I did not, however, imagine that an academic career would be a viable one for me, as posts in it were so few at that time and dependent on absolutely stellar university examination results. So I prepared for other professions, such as the Home Civil Service or journalism, until my actual undergraduate examination scores, to my surprise, began to put me within reach of the academic ladder. This really seemed an impossible dream come true: to be able to make a living out of what I genuinely best enjoyed doing, and had expected would remain a hobby. I have been very lucky. 

EDW: Growing up, you juggled the twin interests of history and archaeology, being a member of your local archaeological society, taking part in excavations at Pilsdon Pen, Ascott-under-Wychwood chambered tomb, and Hen Domen castle, and subsequently attending Glyn Daniel's archaeological lectures at Cambridge. Those familiar with your two books on the subject of pre-Christian belief systems in Britain, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy (Blackwell, 1991) and Pagan Britain (Yale University Press, 2013), will be well aware that you still retain a very keen interest in developments within British archaeology, and are comfortable enough with the subject to publish works of an interdisciplinary character. What are your feelings regarding the relationship and co-operation between the two disciplines, with particular regard for the study of prehistoric and protohistoric religions?

Hutton's two books on ancient pre-Christian belief systems in Britain and the
Atlantic Archipelago; copyright Blackwell and Yale University Press respectively.
RH: I don’t think that anything that I have written has been genuinely interdisciplinary – I am very much a historian who uses archaeological data – and I do not know of any colleague who balances equally between archaeology and history in her or his work. There should in theory be at least a perfect complementarity between them, as history is essentially concerned with textual evidence and archaeology with material evidence. This means that prehistory is wholly dependent on archaeological material, and that in later historic periods the archaeology can be interpreted mostly in accordance with the written evidence. It is in the earlier historic periods that the material and the textual data need in theory to be brought together as a single body of evidence, but this is more awkward than may appear. The two disciplines have totally different personnel and cultural, practical and philosophical underpinnings: history is unequivocally an art and a craft, but archaeology is pulled between claims that it is also an art and counter-assertions that it is actually a social, or even a hard, science. The skills needed for each are different. In practice, historians rarely use archaeological evidence unless the material excavated is a text, while archaeologists in the past interpreted their finds too much in accordance with the assertions of ancient and medieval writers, and lately some have swung too much in the other direction, towards denying the relevance of written testimony at all. It is an uneasy relationship.

EDW: Your early academic publications The Royalist War Effort (Routledge, 1982), The Restoration (Clarendon, 1985), Charles the Second (Clarendon, 1989), and The British Republic (Palgrave Macmillan, 1990) – were devoted to Britain in the seventeenth century, looking at the Civil War, Cromwell's Commonwealth, and the subsequent Restoration of the monarchy. More recently you have published on the subject with Debates in Stuart History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and A Brief History of Britain 1485–1660 (Robinson, 2011). What inspired this particular interest, and why did you pursue it through your MA and DPhil? Is it something that you intend to return to in future? 

RH: The English Civil War and the following English Revolution were very prominent in national memory in the years 1966-1973, when I was a teenager; perhaps because those were a period of intense cultural change, when basic questions of national identity were up for review as they had been (more violently) in the earlier period. There were lots of pop histories and novels, and two memorable films, produced about this bit of history during those years, and the first and largest historical re-enactment society in Britain, the Sealed Knot, was founded to celebrate it. I consumed them all once my interest had been activated by a school project and by realising how much the war and revolution ran through the stories of the historic monuments which I systematically visited during vacations. It became an abiding passion, and had I not become a historian I would probably have written a series of (not very good) historical novels about the Civil War period in my spare time. Instead I wrote my doctoral thesis and first book about it; which was exactly the right choice as it was a focus of intense interest among professional historians at that time, and so an excellent launch-pad for a career. I followed up this beginning with three more books, but was increasingly aware that I had always been interested in other areas of history as well, in which I might be more of a pioneer now that my career was securely established, and so I went into them instead. I still write about early modern Britain, as you have noted, and intend to return there in the next book after my current one, which will probably be a study of Oliver Cromwell. I have also stayed loyal to the Sealed Knot, and am now its Vice President for life, having worked my way up to that level from the ranks. 

EDW: From your studies on seventeenth-century history, you went on to focus on British folk festivals, resulting in the publication of The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400–1700 (Oxford University Press, 1994) and The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford University Press, 1996), the latter of which has probably become one of the most important and oft-cited publications in British folkloristics, period. What was it that led to this avenue of your research and how did you feel about the intersection between history and folkloristics that it entailed? 

RH: An interest in folk culture, and especially in those aspects of it which allegedly descended from pre-Christian times, was one feature of the counter-culture which flourished in Britain around 1970, and of which I was a part: the folk club was often the local centre of that counter-culture. Such an interest united easily with my affection for ancient paganism, and when I was in my mid-teens I drafted the plan and filled in much of the material for a book on seasonal festivals, which almost twenty years later became The Stations of the Sun (as a teenager I also drafted a book on Neolithic tomb-shrines which provided some of the material for the one on ancient British paganism which I published in 1991). In the intervening period, scholarly folklorists almost completely changed their attitudes to the subject, from assuming that virtually all folk customs derived from pagan rites to realising that very few did; and my work reflected that shift and gave me more interesting work to do as a historian, in trying to work out how customs had actually developed and mutated. Folklore is, however, a different discipline from history, having more in common with the social sciences, and is in any case hardly represented in the British academic system. I don’t really think, therefore, that my work actually represented ‘an intersection between history and folkloristics’ so much as a historian using data partly generated by folklore studies. 

EDW: Although often eclipsed by your research and publications in other areas, your work on the shamanism(s) of Siberia is something that I have found to be particularly interesting, and given that it is your only work that isn't Britain-centred, it stands out as a somewhat unusual part of your oeuvre. Your book Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination (Hambledon and London, 2001) is an excellent introduction to the subject, and I am aware that you have previously published a popular guide on the subject, The Shamans of Siberia (Isle of Avalon Press, 1993). What is it about this particular part of the world and its magico-religious beliefs that fascinates you, and how did you go about researching a spirituality that is all the way on the other side of the Eurasian continent, in an incredibly culturally and linguistically diverse region?

Hutton's Shamans.
Copyright Hambledon and London.
RH: The two publications that you mention are very different in kind. The ‘popular guide’ was a lecture that I gave at Glastonbury to raise money for an institution there, the leaders of which then asked to publish and sell it locally in order to raise more. It was never intended to attract serious scholarly attention; but the later book was, and remains an essential component of my evolving body of work. My willingness to write on the subject was propelled by two developments in the years around 1990. One was the growing interest in shamanism as a major aspect of British alternative forms of spirituality. The other, and more important, was Carlo Ginzburg’s promotion of a universal archaic shamanism as a key influence on early modern images of witchcraft. Both drew ultimately on a model of shamanism developed by Mircea Eliade in the mid twentieth century, which I found both inspiring and limiting, as I did the works which had embraced it. I believed that a tighter definition was needed to make sense of differing regional patterns in European folk beliefs concerning the supernatural, based on Siberia which was the region that had produced the term and concept of the shaman.

For a British scholar I was unusually well equipped to suggest one, in that my mother had come from a Russian family, and her mother told me much about the Tsarist Russia of her own youth. This made Siberia quite familiar to me as Russia’s huge back garden, and my own travels in the USSR in the 1980s enabled me to study the relics of Siberian shamanism in museums and talk to old people who had experienced shamanic rites. My work on the subject therefore became a vital component of my slow accumulation of data and expertise for a major study of the folkloric roots of European witchcraft beliefs, which is currently coming to fruition. I can usually identify a moment when I decide to write a particular book, and that on shamanism, eventually published in 2001, was conceived in a rural pub, at Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, over a lunch of bread, cheese and farmhouse cider in August 1990. I was rereading Eliade, and suddenly realised that I could do something distinctive with the subject.

EDW: More recently, you have turned your attention to the thorny issue of the Druids with your books The Druids: A History (Hambledon Continuum, 2007) and Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain (Yale University Press, 2009). However, rather than simply going over the little evidence that we do have for these magico-religious specialists of the Western European Iron Age, as many others have already done, you have provided an analysis of how they have actually been re-interpreted through history, from the Early Medieval to the 1990s. What drove you to investigate this particular subject and to author both an academically-oriented and popular-oriented book on the basis of your research?

Hutton's two books on the Druids: The Druids (2007) was aimed at
a popular audience, while Blood and Mistletoe (2009) was
Copyright Hambledon Continuum and Yale UP respectively.
RH: Once more a confluence of modern spirituality and scholarly trajectory inspired these books. Druidry had become a major component of British Paganism during the early 1990s, and I had been befriended by a number of leading Druids as a result of my publications; so it was enticing to write about their tradition. More important, to deal with Druids as an aspect of the British imagination since 1500 was a natural offshoot of my existing work on the modern reception of images and ideas gained from ancient paganism. It was an especially important, rich and extensive field, which plugged into all sorts of political, cultural and social issues in British history.

Furthermore, I was aware by the opening of the 2000s of the damage that my association with the study of modern witchcraft had done to my academic career, and thought that my engagement with a different subject – though still related to the reception of ancient paganism – would reduce this association in the minds of professional colleagues; which it certainly did. My reason for publishing two books was that I wanted to see if instead – as had been my habit – of trying to fuse heavyweight scholarly research and popular appeal into the same book, I would split them between two different works. I don’t think that the tactic really worked, as the bigger and more scholarly one still stole the limelight from the other, so I abandoned it thereafter.

EDW: What projects have you got on the horizon for which we should be keeping an eye out?

RH: I have a big one on the go at present, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, of a comprehensive study of the concept of the witch, in a global, ancient and folkloric setting, to understand more fully the context of the early modern witch trials. This is of course inspired by the work of Continental historians and folklorists such as Carlo Ginzburg, Éva Pócs, Wolfgang Behringer and Gustav Henningsen, and as such is an approach which has been much less favoured by English-speaking counterparts. It will, however, inevitably have some differences from the work of these Continental colleagues, in making a more comprehensive survey of the evidence, emphasising regional differences much more heavily, and relying less on modern folklore collections to plug gaps in earlier evidence. I have six people on my team, the others consisting of a distinguished Classicist, Dr Genevieve Liveley, a medievalist, Dr Louise Wilson, and three research students, working respectively on Italy, male witches and the animal familiar. Together we should produce three books, mine being the largest and the broadest in its scope, and three doctoral theses with resulting spin-off publications, in three to four years.

EDW: Much has been said about your relationship with contemporary Paganism, and in particular Wicca, although in contrast basically nothing has been commented on your dealings with other world religions. Given that you were born in India, I would be particularly interested to learn of your relationship with the religions of the subcontinent.

RH: I don’t have much of a personal relationship with them, though I know them fairly well and have interacted with both at times, especially on my travels. I find Hinduism perfectly familiar and attractive as an eastern extension of ancient European paganism. Buddhism appeals to me rather less, as I am too fond of this world and life, but I admire the compassion which it encourages in some of its adherents.

EDW: Are your relations with Christianity, Islam or Judaism more important?

RH: Certainly they have impinged on me more often, both because my travels have taken in more countries where they are significant forces, and because of their impact on my own society. I know their core texts, especially those of Judaism and Christianity, and of course Christianity has been the dominant and defining faith of my own society. My relationship with all three might be described as one of benevolent detachment. In the case of Christianity, however, my attitudes take almost an opposite form to that propounded by most liberal humanists, which is to suggest that Jesus Christ was at the least a wonderful person and teacher, but that his message was distorted and deformed by established Churches. I remain deeply impressed by the achievements to which many Christians have been inspired by their religion, in art, architecture, literature and acts of courage and generosity, while finding its original texts completely unsympathetic and the figure of Jesus deeply unattractive. That is the reason why I could never be a Christian myself, and of course the influence of the religion is totally missing from my personal background. My affection and respect for many individual Christians, now and in the past, is therefore propelled by what they have managed to make of what seems to me such unpromising original material. I am perfectly aware that the same religion has also inspired people to appalling acts of atrocity, and that its basic claim to sole truth and goodness can been deeply problematic in a multi-cultural, multi-faith society. On the other hand, some of the finest Christian literature, art and architecture has been produced by societies which were also among the most murderously intolerant, so there is no straightforward opposition of good and evil in the story. I have little in common with people of any kind who instinctually view the cosmos as polarised between right and wrong beliefs, causes and groups, both in the past and in the present. The world seems to me always to have been a messier sort of place.

EDW: Most recently you have been making regular appearances on British television, presenting the 12-episode series Curiosities (Yesterday, 2013), in which you visited various lesser known museums around Britain, as well as the documentary A Very British Witchcraft (Channel 4, 2013), which offered a biographical account of Gerald Gardner and the foundation of Gardnerian Wicca. Aside from these ventures, you also make semi-regular appearances in a wide array of documentaries, most recently Tudor Monastery Farm, and have become a familiar face on British television. How did you get involved in the world of TV and what do you see as the importance of such appearances for public outreach?

RH: I have been making television appearances since the mid-1980s, and got essential broadcasting experience before then on radio stations, first local and then national, like a lot of academics who have become prominent in the media. During my teens I regularly acted on stage, and this gave me an ability to speak concisely and clearly and to be directed by others, both of which come in useful when broadcasting. Television companies and crews are very unstable units, and so a straightforward continuity of reputation was difficult to build for a part-time media person like myself. I could get a deluge of work for a few years and then little for a few after that, and often commissioning editors would want me to present a series but were unable to find a good enough proposal for one from a company. It has taken thirty years for me to become the ‘go-to’ historian on a range of subjects for most directors. I enjoy being interviewed, because I can give spontaneous answers and turn up on set for a few hours of work. Presenting is less fun, because I often have to speak scripted lines, and the amount of time that needs to be blocked out to film a one-hour documentary, let alone a series, cannot usually be taken off from my university duties. Television and radio, however, are marvellous ways of communicating history and prehistory to the general public, and especially the first: I reckon that two minutes of prime television time is worth an hour on radio or a weekly column in a newspaper. I also feel a debt to the mass media, in that my school, though it did have one very good history teacher, simply did not have the resources to train me for the broad approach to the past needed to pass the Cambridge entrance examination. I did that myself by reading popular history books borrowed from the public library, and by watching as much television history and prehistory as I could. Without those media I would have no academic career, and I feel obliged to give a lot back to them in gratitude.

EDW: From October 2009 to September 2013, you served as a Commissioner of English Heritage. How did you find yourself in this prestigious role, and what did the position actually entail?
The English Heritage logo
RH: English Heritage is the public organisation, answerable to the central government, which protects the physical remains of the nation’s past, both by dealing with apparent threats to buildings and landscapes from neglect and development and by caring for over four hundred properties itself, including Stonehenge and the best bits of Hadrian’s Wall. The commission on which I served is the governing body of the whole thing, forming all policies for it and taking all major decisions, and I was the historian upon it for that term, being preceded by Sir David Cannadine. I applied because English Heritage itself invited me to do so, as a result of my combination of an academic profile with one in public service and the mass media. I was not the only person whom it approached, and other notable scholars applied independently, so the competition was serious. I think that I won the position when interviewed (by top civil servants and a leading archaeologist) because I had first-hand knowledge of all the properties which English Heritage manages. Again, my teenage activities were crucial here, because in my school holidays I had systematically visited all of them, and all those in Wales, when they were still directly run by the government.

I had a wonderful time during my four-year term, not least because the quality of my fellow commissioners was so high, and their reputations and achievements in a range of national activities so much more impressive than mine. None the less, I pulled my weight, and was rapidly appointed to chair the Remuneration Committee of English Heritage, which discusses pay arrangements, and the Designation Review Committee, which advises the government in controversial cases where buildings or sites have either been granted or refused protection as historic. My period of service was an exceptionally difficult one for the whole organisation, because the government cut its funding so severely, as part of the emergency measures taken to combat the national economic crash, that it effectively ceased to be viable in its traditional form. We eventually agreed to propose its division into two halves, one to become financially self-supporting, which at time of writing is yet to be implemented. At the end of my service as a commissioner, I was immediately appointed to two new public positions, as chair of the Blue Plaques Panel, which decides which historic figures should be honoured with memorials placed on their former homes in London, and as an academic advisor to the Royal Armouries, the national museum of arms and armour from all ages.

EDW: You’ve now been operating within the study of history for thirty-eight years, and that being the case, I'd be interested to hear your take on where the discipline is headed, particularly given the current cut-backs to higher education. More specifically, it would be good if you could articulate your views on where those areas in which you have taken a research interest – such as Pagan studies, the study of shamanism, and the study of witchcraft – are headed.

RH: History itself is in a very strong position in the educational system of the United Kingdom, as it is so popular amongst school and university students. This is because many people find it fun in itself, as a huge number of allegedly true stories, and it also provides a very good general training, in taking a mass of evidence, basing a personal interpretation on that, and then seeking to persuade others of the viability of that viewpoint. This skill is essential to many different subsequent careers, which is why history graduates are rarely unemployed. The government tried till recently to restrict entry into history degrees, and force students into less popular and more directly vocational subjects, by funding the latter more generously. The current coalition has, however, completely deregulated university entry, now that applicants have to pay for their own degrees, and history departments are undergoing a considerable expansion in staff and students, including my own. It is a very good time at which to specialise in the subject.

The other areas about which you asked are in very different positions, both from that of history in general and from each other. Pagan Studies have not established themselves as a sub discipline anywhere in the British academic system; the best that happens is that they are taught by a few individuals attached to some Religious Studies departments. More generally, to be a Pagan in contemporary Britain is not too dissimilar from being a Baptist or Quaker in eighteenth-century Britain: it is now possible to be known as one without fear of losing your job, having your home attacked or having your children taken away, but such a religious allegiance can still be enough to stop those who profess it from being taken seriously as candidates for responsible and powerful positions. Shamanism, by contrast, is a huge growth area for research in many disciplines, and is in danger of being used as a catch-all category and mechanism for explanation in large areas of history, prehistory and archaeology. The early modern witch trials, and the beliefs that generated them, are now a heavily populated and totally respectable subject for research among professional historians, and the study of witchcraft and magic in the ancient and medieval worlds is expanding rapidly. That of the same subjects in the modern Western world, by contrast, has hardly commenced, and is tainted by the general public prejudice against practitioners. We still have a long way to go in order to build a genuinely tolerant, liberal and multi-faith society, based on individual choice, in our nation at least, Ethan. Your blog may be doing something valuable to further that cause.

EDW: Thank you so much for talking with me here today, Professor Hutton; I wish you all the very best in future.