Sunday, 29 November 2015

Some Thoughts on the ASSAP conference, "Seriously Bewitched"

Yesterday I attended (and spoke at) a one-day public conference titled “Seriously Bewitched”, organised by the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomenon (ASSAP) and held on the premises of Goldsmiths, University of London, an academic institution based in southeast London’s New Cross. As its title suggested, the conference was devoted to the subject of witchcraft, both in its historical and contemporary manifestations. Given ASSAP’s remit, the conference was not strictly academic (although there were many academics present), and instead it aimed to reach a much wider audience including quite a number of people who were personally involved in forms of modern religious Witchcraft. This broad church approach undoubtedly had its benefits in bringing together divergent opinions and perspectives in a spirit of dialogue, although at times it also resulted in some vocal disagreement, particularly from attendees who weren’t particularly familiar with the nature of academic scholarship or the realities of what historically constituted “witchcraft”.

The event kicked off with some opening remarks from Professor Chris French, a psychologist based at Goldsmiths who has a particular interest in the critical study of paranormal phenomenon; for me, it was particularly intriguing to finally meet Professor French in the flesh as I remember him being a talking head on television shows about the paranormal when I was a child. He was followed by Deborah Hyde, his successor as editor of The Skeptic magazine, who used her talk to delve into the Roman Catholic Church’s response to Medieval heresy, discussing how that phenomenon impacted on the later witch trials of the Early Modern period. Sticking with those trials, we then had Christian Jensen Romer, a self-professed evangelical Christian, offer a discussion of the witch trials that took place both in Eastern England at the urging of Matthew Hopkins and those that took place in Salem, Massachusetts. Seeking to turn commonly held notions upon their head, he pointed out that many of those most active in carrying out these persecutions were highly educated men working on a rationalist basis – he even compared them, perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek, to ASSAP members – while also noting that it was Puritan preachers who were among the most vocal critics of the trials.

It was my turn after lunch, as I focused on “The New Witches of the West”, looking at the development of Wicca – in both its British Traditional and later Dianic variants – as well as modern Satanism, before exploring quite why many modern day people choose to identify as “witches” when that term is so loaded with historical baggage. Given that I was feeling a little under-the-weather, I chose to read from a script rather than speak without one, however I got a fair bit of positive feedback nevertheless (although I was somewhat lost for words when one audience member started insisting that a secret cabal of Satanists rule the world…). I was followed by Dr. Helen Cornish of Goldsmiths, who discussed the fascinating case of Joan Wytte, “the Fighting Fairy Woman of Bodmin”, whose alleged physical remains had been displayed at Cecil Williamson’s Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall for many years. Returning to the subject of modern Pagan Witchcraft, PhD candidate Charmaine Sonnex then discussed some of her ongoing work on how modern British Pagans (into which she includes British Traditional Wiccans, eclectic solitary Wiccans, and Druids) conduct magic spells and how they believe that such spells work.

Moving into the evening session, the Wiccan High Priestess Bekie Bird provided a biographical overview of her own life, discussing key events in her childhood and adolescence that led her onto the Pagan path, and talking about her beliefs pertaining to magic and spirituality. Finally, independent folklorist Mark Norman ended the day with a talk on what he termed “Traditional Witchcraft” – meaning both historical folk magic and those contemporary esotericists who self-designate as “Traditional Witches” – focusing in particular on how “Traditional Witchcraft” has been presented by Gemma Gary of the Cornish-based coven Ros an Bucca. All in all, it was an interesting day that brought together many interesting people and interesting talks, and my thanks must be extended to its organisers. For those interested, the next themed ASSAP conference, “Seriously Enchanted”, will be devoted to fairy lore and will take place at The Academy, Holiday Inn, in Bristol on 12 March 2016.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

An Interview with Dr. Ceri Houlbrook

Today here at Albion Calling we have the archaeologist and folklorist Dr. Ceri Houlbrook with us (if you're not familiar with her work, check out her account here). Having completed her PhD on the subject of coin trees at the University of Manchester back in 2014, she is currently involved in a post-doctoral project examining concealed apotropaic devices in the British Isles and the ways in which they have been dealt with by those who have discovered them. We talk about her research, her new co-edited book, and her views on the intersections between folkloristics and archaeology.

Dr Houlbrook at a love-lock bridge in Prague, Czech Republic

[EDW]: Under the supervision of the archaeologist Professor Tim Insoll (who was interviewed here back in August 2014), you completed your PhD at the University of Manchester in 2014 on the topic of “Coining the Coin-Tree: Contextualising a Contemporary British custom”. Subsequently, you have published a number of research articles on the coin tree phenomenon in such peer-reviewed journals as Folklore, Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, and Post-Medieval Archaeology. What was it that led you to coin trees as an object of enquiry? Could you possibly also provide this blog’s readers with a summary of your research on this subject?

[CH]: Since doing my MA in ‘Constructions of the Sacred, the Holy and the Supernatural’ at Manchester, I’ve been interested in British folk customs – particularly how they survive, and sometimes flourish, in contemporary society. The coin-tree is just one such example of this. Although the custom of inserting coins into trees stretches back to the 1800s (maybe even the 1700s), where it was originally associated with healing rituals, it’s really only been over the last two decades that the practice has spread across the British Isles, with coin-trees popping up in all corners of the country. I was interested in asking why the 1990s and 2000s had seen such a rapid increase in the custom, and in finding out what it means to its modern-day participants. My conclusion: it means whatever its participants want it to mean, and I use coin-trees to demonstrate the malleability of folklore and the mutability of meaning. These allow customs, legends, and lore to survive their transitions into different times and places, by enabling them to adapt.

[EDW]: You are currently a Postdoctoral Research Assistant working as part of a Leverhulme-funded project titled “Inner Lives: Emotions, Identity, and the Supernatural, 1300–1900”, which is based at both the University of East Anglia and the University of Hertfordshire. Could you tell us a little bit more about this exciting new project and what your role entails?

[CH]: As you might have guessed from its title, this project, run by Prof. Malcolm Gaskill, Prof. Owen Davies, and Dr Sophie Page, is broad – both chronologically and thematically. To summarise briefly, we’re interested in examining how people historically have dealt with the cross-overs of emotions (fear, hatred, love), selfhood, and aspects of the supernatural. My strand of the project is entitled ‘The Concealed Revealed’, and I’m looking at the sorts of devices and customs people used to protect their homes from preternatural threats, from concealed shoes and mummified cats to timber markings. As well as cataloguing examples of this from across the British Isles, I’m also interested in considering what happens to them after they’re found; once the concealed has been revealed, so to speak. Are they disposed of, re-concealed, or displayed? And what does that tell us about people today and their own relationships with emotions, identity, and the supernatural?

Coin-tree in Ingleton, Yorkshire.
Image copyright Dr. Houlbrook
[EDW]: Like myself, you’ve been in attendance at the Folklore Society’s Newer Researchers conferences over the past two years and have conducted research that has crossed into the two respective fields of archaeology and folkloristics. Where do you tend to view yourself in relation to these two disciplines, and how well do you think that they work together?

[CH]: Although I’m not a huge fan of labels and pigeonholing myself, if people ask I tend to call myself a ‘folklore archaeologist’. This basically means that I use methodologies from both folklore and archaeology to gain insights into ritual practices and popular beliefs, both historical and contemporary. Take concealed shoes for example. We have no (surviving) written evidence describing the practice and therefore no explanation for why people in the 18th and 19th centuries concealed shoes within the walls, roof spaces, and fireplaces of their homes. Cue folklore archaeology: by considering oral lore surrounding shoes and the materiality of the shoes themselves, together with their liminal locations, we can at least come up with some working theories on this enigmatic practice.

[EDW]: Oxbow Books have recently brought out The Materiality of Magic: An Artifactual Investigation into Ritual Practices and Popular Beliefs, an edited volume that you co-produced with Natalie Armitage. In this volume, you also have a chapter titled “The Wishing-Tree of Isle Maree: The Evolution of a Scottish Folkloric Practice”. Could you elaborate for us on how this particular book came about?

[CH]: In 2012, Natalie Armitage and I organised a panel at the Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference entitled ‘The Materiality of Magic’. We were eager to get both the subject and word of ‘magic’ – seen as something of an academic taboo – back onto the archaeological agenda, and to illustrate how research into ritual practices and popular beliefs benefit from a material culture perspective. We were also eager to demonstrate how prevalent such practices and beliefs are across time and place, and so we invited speakers with a wide range of interest areas, ranging from Bronze Age Europe to modern-day Africa. The session was a great success and in saying that I’m not blowing my own trumpet, but that of the speakers. The fact that the session attracted such a large audience that we needed to move to a larger room is no doubt due to the fantastic papers presented and the interesting debates they sparked. Publishing the session was the logical next step; the themes we discuss and the methodologies we employ are important, so we naturally wanted to reach as large an audience as possible.

[EDW]: Are there any other projects in the pipeline that we should be keeping our eyes out for?

[CH]: My personal interest at the moment is the archaeology and heritage of love-locks. For anyone who doesn’t know what love-locks are, they’re exactly what their names suggest: padlocks employed globally in declarations of love, usually inscribed with a couple’s names and attached to a bridge. I find them fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly, for what they reveal about the malleability of folk customs; love-rituals boast a very long history but they have to adapt in order to survive, and love-locks are the most recent – and arguably the most widespread – manifestation. Secondly, they’re incredibly useful from an archaeological perspective: studying a contemporary custom can inform how we interpret past practices. And thirdly, they reveal a lot about notions (and the subjectivity) of heritage; some cities (e.g. Paris) see love-locks as a nuisance to be discouraged and disposed of, while others (e.g. Cardiff) embrace them as part of their heritage. I’m currently applying for funding to conduct both broader and more in-depth research into this custom, but for now I’m keeping a blog ( and asking anyone with information on, pictures of, and opinions about love-locks to contact me on

[EDW]: Thank you very much Ceri, I wish you all the best with the rest of your Concealed Revealed project!

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Upcoming conference: "Seriously Bewitched" at Goldsmiths, southeast London

Those living in the vicinity of London and who have an interest in the subject of witchcraft may be excited to learn that the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomenon (ASSAP) will be holding a one-day conference – titled “Seriously Bewitched” – on Saturday 29 November 2015. To be held on the premises of Goldsmiths, University of London in New Cross, Southeast London, the event follows on the heels of last year’s sold-out ASSAP conference “Seriously Possessed” and will be devoted to witchcraft in its various manifestations, both historical and contemporary.

I will be speaking at an afternoon session on “The New Witches of the West”, while other speakers include Deborah Hyde (editor-in-chief of The Skeptic magazine), Charmaine Sonnex (PhD candidate at the University of Northampton), Bekie Bird (Wiccan priestess), Mark Norman (folklorist), Christian Jensen Romer (parapsychologist) and Helen Cornish (anthropologist at Goldsmiths) – it’s an eclectic mix, but one which is sure to make for a fascinating day.  Although myself and other academics have been invited to talk, the event is not explicitly an "academic conference" and thus should be easily accessible to anyone who has an interest in this intriguing subject. Most of the tickets have already been bought but I am given to understand that a few can still be purchased here. If it sounds like your thing, come along!

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Thoughts on the Petrie Museum's "Margaret Murray: Witchcraft Theory and the 'Lunatic' Fringe?

Last night, the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology hosted an event titled “Margaret Murray: Witchcraft Theory and the ‘Lunatic’ Fringe”, which – as its name suggests – was devoted to the famous Egyptologist and folklorist who was herself well connected to the Petrie Museum and the man after whom it was named, the archaeologist Flinders Petrie. Although well-respected among scholars of Ancient Egypt, today Murray is perhaps better known as the foremost proponent of the discredited witch-cult theory which proved to be such a significant influence on the burgeoning Pagan religion of Wicca, and it was to this aspect of her life that this event was devoted. Scheduled to take place two weeks after Halloween – and thus within the season of all things witchy – it also fell upon 13th November, thereby marking the 52nd anniversary of Murray’s death.

Accompanied by a specially selected playlist and a palm reader operating amid the cases of Egyptological artefacts, the event was structured around two talks by established London academics. The first talk was provided by Titus Hjelm, a sociologist who teaches at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Having a particular interest in the sociology of religion, he has previously published both a Finnish-language book on Wicca and an English-language paper on Paganism in Finland within the pages of the Journal of Contemporary Religion (I cite the latter in my new book, Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, now available for purchase in Europe). Hjelm provided the audience with a basic outline of Murray’s witch-cult theory and the impact that it had on the burgeoning Wiccan faith; it was the basic stuff for those of us who are already involved in the study of early Wicca, but enlightening for others nonetheless.

Hjelm was followed by Roger Luckhurst, a scholar of English literature at Birkbeck, University of London. Rather than talk about Murray per se, Luckhurst delved into the work of William Seabrook, an American surrealist and author whose prime claim to fame was through introducing the word “zombie” into the English language. Luckhurst dealt in particular with Seabrook’s 1942 book, Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today, and while it wasn’t made completely clear that Murray exerted a strong influence over Seabrook’s understanding of witchcraft – which was more diabolist than pre-Christian – it nevertheless helped to set Murray’s ideas within their wider cultural setting.
The event was incredibly busy – many of us had to sit on the floor in order to hear the speakers – and I overheard a number of Petrie regulars commenting on how they had never seen the museum so crowded. Surely, this stands as a testament to how Murray continues to fascinate people and how she has continuing relevance for many of us today. Not a huge number of her contemporaries could say the same.

Friday, 6 November 2015

New(ish) Interview with Me at the UCL Website

I’ve just been alerted to the fact that back in August an interview with me was posted over at the University College London (UCL) website. The interview itself was part of an “Inspire Me @UCL” series designed to showcase a variety of students and staff active at the university, and thus while it is perhaps not of the greatest interest to many of this blog’s readers, the link is here for anyone who wants to check it out.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

CFP: Meeting of the Central and Eastern European Network for the Study of Western Esotericism

I’m just sharing the abstract for the upcoming conference meeting of the Central and Eastern European Network for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism (CEENASWE; a branch of the wider European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism) that might be of interest to many of my readers. Due to be held on 27–28 May 2016 at the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade, Serbia, the conference will be devoted to the subject of “Esotericism, Literature and Culture in Central and Eastern Europe.”

According to the CFP, “While relation between esotericism and literatures of the region is in the focus of the conference, scholars are also encouraged to present research of neglected aspects of cultural history, both in pre-Modern and Modern times.” The call for papers is open till 01 December 2015; please send an abstract of no more than 300 words accompanied by a short biography with information regarding affiliation to Nemanja Radulovic at

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

An Interview with Yvonne Aburrow

Previous installments in this interview series have mostly been with professional academics who are involved in the study of such topics as witchcraft and contemporary Paganism, but today I’m doing something slightly different. Here I provide an interview with Yvonne Aburrow (see her profile here), a British Wiccan known within the country’s Pagan community for her various publications -- among them The Enchanted Forest (1993) and The Magical Lore of Animals (1999) -- and who will be known to some outside the community as the figurehead behind the Pagans for Archaeology project which sought to help bridge the gap between the two communities. We talk about the continuing dialogue between these two groups, her own academic education, and her views on the future interaction between practicing Pagans and the academic field of Pagan studies.

[EDW]: You obtained an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spirituality from Bath Spa University, which had one of the only religious studies departments in the UK that actually focused on more “alternative” forms of religiosity such as contemporary Paganism. Did you choose that department specifically, and what was the overall experience of studying there like?

[YA]: I did choose it specifically but it was also very handy that I was living nearby at the time.

The course was excellent (although it could have benefited from more of a focus on discourse analysis in the research methods module). We looked at a number of different contemporary religions including Paganism, but one of the modules was seen through the lens of gender and sexuality, which is something that interests me greatly as an intersectional feminist. For this module I did a study of queer spirituality.

There was also a module on East meets West, which I had hoped would be about how Eastern thought had influenced the occult and Pagan revival - but it was actually mostly about the negative impact of Christianity on the East, especially Sri Lanka - though I was delighted to discover that the Theosophists had helped to restore the local forms of spirituality there. My essay for that module was on the relationship of the Unitarians and the Brahmo Samaj.

For my dissertation, I looked at Pagans relationship with science, and found that most Pagans do not view our beliefs as incompatible with science, and most believe that Pagan deities are immanent in the world. The rest of the sample were atheists.

[EDW]: In 2008, you were behind the establishment of an organisation titled “Pagans for Archaeology” in which you sought to challenge those vocal segments of the British Pagan community who were attacking the archaeological establishment over such issues as the excavation of Seahenge and the retention of excavated human remains for further study. The group ran a blog, held a 2009 conference at the University of Bristol, and currently has almost 15,000 “likes” on Facebook. What brought you to the decision to do this and what do you believe were its successes?

Yvonne Aburrow at Wayland's Smithy.
[YA]: I was very unhappy with the idea expressed by some Pagans, mainly Druids, that respect for the dead automatically entails reburial. For me, respecting the dead involves finding out and remembering as much as we can about their lives, and celebrating them. Archaeology enables us to do this by reconstructing the lives of ancient people - we can find out what they ate, where they lived, how far they traveled, what diseases they had, how they died - almost everything apart from their names. If you consult ancient texts, there is almost a universal desire to be remembered - and archaeology, especially osteo-archaeology, recovers the memory and stories of the nameless and forgotten, whereas reburial would obliterate their stories and any hope of recovering more information about them.

I hope that archaeologists noticed that there are many Pagans who support archaeology and dont actually want remains reburied. Pagans for Archaeology also responded to a government consultation about reburial, and encouraged our members to submit individual responses too.

[EDW]: Related to the previous question, I wanted to ask you where you see the future relationship between the Pagan community and the archaeological establishment going? Do you think that it is still going to be a rocky road or do you think that the future is going to be smoother than the past in this respect?

[YA]: No idea to be honest, but I do hope that the archaeological community, which has a lot of rationalists in it, does not fall for the common trope that all people of religion are ignorant, irrational, and dogmatic, which is very far from being the case.

I wrote to the excavators of Seahenge to say that I thought it was a good thing that they were finding out about this hitherto lost pagan past, and they replied to say that many Pagans had visited the excavation and expressed support, only to melt away when the TV cameras appeared.

[EDW]: You’ve been involved in the Patheos Pagan website, where alongside Christine Hoff Kraemer (whom I interviewed here back in April 2013) you co-run a blog, formerly termed “Sermons from the Mound” and now titled “Dowsing for Divinity”. How did that project come about?

[YA]: I had been banging on about the need for a discursive Pagan theology for ages, and Christine noticed and invited me to share her Patheos blog on Pagan theology. 

I feel that we need to discuss theology - not to lay it down as dogma in any sort of prescriptive way - because otherwise we all follow unspoken assumptions (which are usually heterocentric anyway). It is worth remembering that the term "theology" was originally pagan as it was coined by Cicero in 49 CE, in his work, De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods).

[EDW]: You’ve also fairly recently published the book All Acts of Love and Pleasure: Inclusive Wicca, an insider-exploration of ‘alternative’ sexuality in Wicca. This is a fascinating subject, with some thematic connections to my own outsider research on sexuality in the modern cultus of Antinous; could you tell us a little more about this particular publication?

[YA]: As a bisexual genderqueer person myself, I got fed up with the heteronormative and heterocentric aspects of some Wiccan rituals. I am fortunate in that the line I was initiated into is unusually blessed with a large number of bisexuals, so we were always ready to challenge heterocentric stuff when we ran across it. I also try to challenge the view that it is necessary to espouse any particular theological viewpoint in order to be Wiccan. I have always been a polytheist for various reasons (not least of which is that duotheism is heteronormative) except when I'm having an atheist or agnostic phase. It is also very important to me that my religion is not in conflict with science - hence my dissertation topic. I have also had a lot of coven trainees with dyslexia. All of this fed into the book - which is about including different perspectives as well as including LGBTQIA people.

[EDW]: As a practicing Pagan who clearly has an interest in scholarship, including the academic field of Pagan studies, what is your take on the current state of this particular area of inquiry? How do you feel that the Pagan community are approaching and utilising scholarship on the subject of contemporary Paganism?

[YA]: One problem is that the productions of academia are not very accessible to the general public, either because of cost or because of lack of access to journals or inaccessible language employed by academics. I have always admired Ronald Hutton [EDW: who was interviewed here back in July 2014] for seeking to make his work more accessible to the general public - even to the point of writing two separate books on Druidry, one for a popular audience and one for a more scholarly audience.

I have sadly not been able to keep up with whats going on in the academic sphere - though I would also applaud your blog, Albion Calling, for seeking to bridge that gap, as I feel it is vital to try to make scholarship available to a more general audience. Pagans are often very interested in the productions of academia and Ronald Hutton is held in high esteem by many in the Pagan community. There is always someone who is upset that he thoroughly debunked the idea of an unbroken initiatory line to the ancient past - but what he gave us instead was much more exciting - namely the idea that the Pagan Revival emerged out of many strands of discourse, including the Enlightenment, the Romantics, nineteenth-century occultism, the grimoire tradition (which is genuinely ancient and traceable back to ancient Egypt), and so on.

The reconstructionist and polytheist communities are much more likely to be using archaeology to inform their views, I would imagine, whereas Wiccans and other witches might be interested in research into fairy beliefs and folklore and nineteenth century occult movements. One of my favourite books on this area is The Place of Enchantment by Alex Owen

In any case, I would like to see more Pagan academics blogging and/or producing popularly accessible books. Sam Websters blog At the Herm and Thorn Mooneys blog Oathbound are particularly interesting. Im also glad to see members of the Pagan intelligentsia like Sable Aradia producing some really thoughtful and interesting writing. And of course there is some outstanding writing by several authors on Gods and Radicals, edited by the truly splendid Rhyd Wildermuth, who writes beautifully and evocatively and intelligently. G&R was co-founded by Alley Valkyrie, another excellent writer, and co-author with Rhyd of A Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer. I realise most academics dont have time to write blogs because theyre too busy doing research and administration and teaching. 

I think Pagans are producing our own structures of meaning and validation as a counterbalance to the arid rationality of most academic discourse, which is often very dismissive of practitioner perspectives and indigenous ways of knowing, as it is still largely entrenched in colonialist perspectives and discourse. I don’t think that Pagan Studies scholars are arid rationalists and crypto-colonialists.

[EDW]: Yvonne Aburrow, thank you for talking about your perspectives with us here today!