Friday, 31 October 2014

A Halloween Review: Michael Howard and Daniel Schulke's "Hands of Apostasy: Essays on Traditional Witchcraft" (Three Hands Press, 2014)

Today – October 31st – is a date observed across the Western world as Halloween, a festival with ancient origins which over the years has come to be associated with ghouls, ghosts, and witchery. In honour of this remarkable day, one which seems to bring together fun, frolic, and fear in equal measure, I have decided to offer a thematically-appropriate book review here at Albion Calling. Although in the past my reviews have appeared only in the pages of academic journals, I have decided to follow the lead of award-winning scholar of Western esotericism Egil Asprem by posting a review directly to my own blog, where it will be available freely to a far wider audience than that normally received by such peer-reviewed scholarly outlets. My decision to do so was sparked by the publisher's invitation to review one of their recently-released esoteric tomes that fits very much within the remit of one of my primary research interests: the historical development of modern religious Witchcraft in Britain and the West more widely.

Hands of Apostasy: Essays on Traditional Witchcraft has been published by Three Hands Press, one of the two publishing arms of the Cultus Sabbati, a magico-religious “Traditional Witchcraft” group that was founded in the early 1990s by the Essex occultist Andrew D. Chumbley (1967–2004). Chumbley claimed to have been initiated into a number of pre-existing British folk magical traditions, whose teachings formed the partial basis from which he established the Cultus, before he went on to gain widespread attention within the Western esoteric milieu for authoring a number of particularly influential grimoires, most notably The Azoëtia, Qutub, and ONE: The Grimoire of the Golden Toad. In later life, he proceeded to enter academia as a historian of religion, although tragically died while carrying out his PhD research. Both of the editors of this particular anthology had strong links to Chumbley; Michael Howard was a close personal friend of his, having previously established himself as a well-known figure in the British occult scene for editing and publishing The Cauldron, a popular practitioner-oriented journal devoted to witchcraft, folklore, and paganism, since 1976. The U.S.-based Daniel Schulke, meanwhile, was an initiate of Chumbley's Cultus who would take on the mantle of the group's Magister (effectively its leader) after its founder's untimely passing, a position that he retains to this day.

Thus, rather than being the product of a scholarly press, Hands of Apostasy is a tome that has been both edited and published by an occult organisation. Furthermore, in keeping with this, its chapters have been (primarily) written not by “outsider” academics but by occultists themselves, emic voices who here discuss the very traditions to which they owe their spiritual allegiance. While I am therefore accustomed to reviewing academic books using the usual benchmarks and standards of academia, here I must attempt to do something different; to review a non-academic work of esotericism from my own perspective as an academic non-esotericist. It would be simply unfair if I were to therefore challenge the contents of this book for being insufficiently academic, because they were never designed to be so in the first place; instead I shall seek to evaluate the varying chapters on their own merits, with critical commentary from my own (somewhat different) position. 

The Introduction:

In the anonymously authored introduction – which can most probably be attributed either to Mr. Howard or Mr. Schulke, if not both of them – the reader is offered such an emic view of the “Traditional Craft”, or “Old Craft” as it is also often known. Here, it is described as “a distinct body of archaic magical practices in present-day Britain and North America, which despite ties to past milieus of magic also thrive within modern spiritual climes” (9). Emphasising that it is not a singular, monolithic entity, the author(s) state that these groups emerge from “a variety of historical magico-religious streams” but that they typically “operate in secret, with strict means of initiatic succession, and practice sorcery characterized by a dual ethos of healing and harming” (9–10). Following this, we are given a brief introduction to a few of the figures whom they see as central to the public dissemination of knowledge on the Traditional Craft, before an outline is provided into the Luciferian world view which many contemporary Crafters – and in particular the members of the Cultus Sabbati – embrace.

A point that I found particularly interesting was that the author seeks in part to define Traditional Witchcraft by explaining what it is not. To their mind, it is “very different in form, ethos and nature” from the “neo-pagan witchcraft” (10) which was pioneered by the English occultist Gerald Gardner in the 1950s, and which in the Alexandrian milieu of the coming decade came to be emblazoned under the somewhat less incendiary name of “Wicca” (on the etymological development of the word see Doyle White 2010). While I would certainly concur that there are some groups flying the banner of the “Old Craft” whose beliefs and practices do indeed differ greatly from those of Gardnerian Wicca and its offspring – the Cultus Sabbati being perhaps the most prominent example – I do not share the belief that all so-called “Traditional Witches” differ so clearly from Gardner's creation. As I have argued elsewhere (Doyle White 2013), textual evidence for the original theology present in the 1960s coven of Robert Cochrane – a man oft treated as the Traditional Witch par excellence depicts a magico-religious tradition that is very much Neopagan in form and content, and that is before one takes into account the compelling evidence that Cochrane himself was also a Gardnerian initiate (see Doyle White 2011). 

Furthermore, it is also evident that the terms “Old Craft” and “Traditional Witchcraft” have come to be embraced by practitioners in various parts of the world whose traditions are quite evidently variants of eclectic Wicca; I am reminded of a passage on page 385 of The Triumph of the Moon in which Professor Ronald Hutton recalls knowing of three covens which established themselves as “Wiccan” in the 1980s, only to switch to declaring themselves practitioners of the “Traditional Craft” in the 1990s. Clearly, for the author of this introduction – as for many Traditional Crafters – the boundaries between Wicca and the Old Craft are, despite a little interaction and mutual influence, comparatively crisp and clear. Etically speaking, I cannot share that view; I see the term “Traditional Craft” as more of a legitimation strategy, a way for certain magico-religious and esoteric groups to hark back to the pre-Gardnerian practices of an older Europe, to a historical “tradition” of witch bottles, cunning folk, and Horse Whisperers, as a means of conjuring up a sense of authenticity, pedigree, and heritage. Some of these groups likely do have such roots – Chumbley's Cultus and the Sabbatic Craft it espouses again being perhaps the most prominent example – but others I suspect owe far more to Gardner's legacy than to those of his antecedents.

The Chapters: 

In the coming chapter we are treated to an article by Chumbley himself on the subject of “The Magic of History”, in which he offers a fascinating personal insight into how he saw himself as embodying “a bridging position” (21) between the world of the historian and that of the magician. In doing so, he discusses both the “history of magic” and “magical history”. While the former offers a fairly simple analysis of textual information placed within a chronological framework, the latter does something quite different, instead tapping into a “timeless” zone through which he believed he could communicate via “spirit-discourse” with the shades of long-deceased magicians (20). As he aptly notes however, “such truth-claims [attained from this zone] cannot be presented as historical evidence, however[...] such truth-claims must be respected by scholarship and treated impartially as the beliefs of a given individual or tradition” (20), thus championing methodological agnosticism among scholars of magic. In doing so, he offers us an intriguing theoretical approach to the analysis of living esoteric and magico-religious traditions that warrants greater attention from those of us who are active in this particular field.

A further aspect of this chapter which I found particularly interesting was Chumbley's suggestion that some of the cunning-folk of mid-to-late nineteenth-century Britain formed together in lodges or covens, and that the descendants of some of these groups have survived to this day, coming to be unified under the banner of “Traditional Witchcraft”. He further suggests that from at least the 1890s, a number of these groups began to actively incorporate elements from the Early Modern iconography of the Witches' Sabbath into their practices. As evidence for this, he comments on his own encounters and experiences with such groups; at the same time, he comments that their secrecy prevents them from opening themselves up to academic scrutiny and study, and that he himself was at times frustrated by this impasse. As he acknowledges, those of us in academia are thus left in a conundrum; (plausible) claims are being made about nineteenth-century magical practices and their continued survival to this day, but the information that historians require to analyse such claims are being intentionally kept sub rosa. As someone who is an academic, I found this a particularl interesting chapter, and feel that it really serves to reiterate what a loss Chumbley was for scholarship in the field of magic.

Chumbley's chapter is followed by a short piece authored by the late American esotericist Douglas McIlwain, in which he lays out his claims to having been initiated into a magico-religious tradition by his great-uncle in 1967 which he himself termed the “Skull and Bones Family Tradition”. As a first-hand testimonial to forms of American folk magic it is truly fascinating but unfortunately – as with so many similar claims – its veracity can (and indeed, from a scholarly perspective, must) be questioned. Remaining in the United States, Corey Thomas Hutcheson then provides us with a comparison of traditional witchcraft lore in the mid-to-southern Appalachians with that of the Ozarks, highlighting how both have identifiable origins in the folk beliefs of Europe but each nevertheless diverged and developed in independent directions prior to being recorded by early twentieth-century folklorists. 

David Rankine then returns us to the Old World in order to argue that the grimoire tradition of Medieval and Early Modern Europe was influenced in various ways by witchcraft. Although an intriguing subject worthy of further in-depth research, it was unfortunate that Rankine did not explicitly outline what he meant by the term “witchcraft”, seemingly including a wide variety of phenomenon – including benevolent folk magical charms – under that category, something with which most scholars would probably take umbrage. A brief piece from the late Cecil Williamson, founder of the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft, is then included, in which he discusses aspects of what he terms “moon-raking rites” in British folk magic. Again, it's very interesting as a document of potential twentieth-century folk practices, but given Williamson's well known habit of bending the truth, such claims have to be taken with a pinch of salt. The anthology then continues with a lengthy chapter from Martin Duffy in which he offers an emic discussion of the esoteric, and often sexual, symbolism of the cauldron. In doing so, he references a wide array of disparate sources, from the iconography of Early Modern diabolical witchcraft to Iron Age archaeology and from the writings of modern Traditional Witches to Afro-Cuban magico-religious practices; this reflects a widespread belief among Traditional Crafters – as among many occultists and esotericists more widely – that there are common magical and occult meanings behind traditions that are otherwise scattered across very different historical and cultural contexts.

Melusine Draco of the Coven of the Scales follows with a discussion of her group's animistic worldview, in which Britain's rural landscape is understood as being populated by an array of genii loci, or spirits of the place, whom she asserts can be contacted through Old Craft practices. Asserting that these traditions therefore represent the survival of pre-Christian British shamanism, her claims regarding ley-lines being marked by late prehistoric megaliths seemingly owe more to the mid-twentieth century Earth Mysteries movement than older folk traditions, something that certainly raised the eyebrow of this particular archaeologist. Howard then offers us a historical overview of necromancy – the act of contacting the spirits of the dead – throughout European history, ranging from archaeological interpretations regarding ancestor cults in Neolithic Europe through to Roman, Medieval, and Early Modern textual accounts and on to the necromantic rites of Traditional Witches. In the ensuing chapter, Peter Hamilton-Giles offers an intriguing discussion of the “witching hour”; in a manner echoing the aforementioned Chumbley chapter, he stresses the difference between the historian's perception of time and the magical practitioner's perception of time with its ties to the idea of personal spiritual truth. Gemma Gary of the Cornish Ros An Bucca group follows with her discussion of “The Man in Black”, or Devil, in European witchcraft, in doing so making extensive reference to the accounts of the Early Modern witch trials and subsequent Modern textual and folkloric accounts of magico-religious groups such as the Toad Witches.

We are then presented with a second offering from Chumbley himself, this time on the origins and rationales of modern Witch-cults. Aptly highlighting that there were magico-religious groups operating prior to the emergence of Wicca which termed themselves “Witches” – most notably the Toad Witches and the Zos Kia Cultus of Austin Osman Spare  he proceeds to discuss the origins of Gardnerian Wicca, seemingly accepting the possibility that Gardner had indeed been initiated into a pre-existing New Forest coven, which represented an older tradition of magic, but that the "Father of Wicca" had then gone on to radically alter this tradition according to the witch-cult hypothesis of Margaret Murray. From there, Levannah Morgan provides a beautifully written personal account of her own experiences with the use of a mirror as a magical tool, rooted in the folk magical traditions which she encountered growing up in rural Wales during the 1960s. Heading into the Irish Sea, we then arrive at the Isle of Man, where a collaborative group known only as Manxwytch discusses some examples of accounts of alleged witchcraft and folk magical customs on the island, before suggesting that these exerted some influence on Gardner, who lived on the island in later life. From Europe's north-west to its south-east, we are then offered a chapter on Serbian “traditional witchcraft” from Radomir Ristic which looks in particular at a rite known as “Unchain the Devil”. Although an interesting account of a folk magical practice that apparently still continues in Serbia, I was a little sceptical as to the unproven assertion that it had its origins in “pre-Christian paganism and Gnosticism” (247), something which appears to represent an approach rooted in the discredited doctrine of folkloric survivalism.

From my own perspective, more satisfying is the following chapter, authored by Jimmy Elwing – co-editor of Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism – on the basis of the work conducted for his recent master's thesis at the University of Amsterdam. Devoted to an analysis of Chumbley's work, it discusses how he constructed and legitimised his Sabbatic Craft, before examining the Magister's ideas pertaining to dream-like states of consciousness as a gateway to gnosis. Although other essays have seen publication discussing Chumbley and his work (for instance Morris 2013), Elwing's work here represents one of the very first scholarly examples to do so, and thus will no doubt be of great help for future researchers venturing into this area.

Italian-American Witch Raven Grimassi follows with a discussion of the traditional associations between witches and botanical knowledge, looking in particular at the case of the mandrake root and the connection between witchery and the forest. Switching focus to the Welsh Marshes, Gary St. Michael Nottingham provides a fascinating discussion of surviving examples of local folk magical charms, which are – as he notes – without exception rooted in Christian sources. The penultimate chapter is provided by Schulke himself, and examines conceptions of darkness within Traditional Witchcraft. He notes that in the Sabbatic Craft, darkness is understood as the preserve of ancient spirits, before embarking on a discussion of the role of the nocturnal darkness in many historical conceptions of witchcraft beliefs as well as in other magical traditions such as Thelema. Finally, Lee Morgan offers a really fascinating chapter on the likely influence exerted by nineteenth-century Romanticism on the Traditional Witchcraft movement; as she points out, the Romanticist ethos of viewing Lucifer as a sympathetic figure, adopting a radical stance against conservative society, and embracing an interest in occult practices could certainly have exerted an influence on the British magical milieu of the period. For me, as someone who is really not very well acquainted with the lives of figures such as Byron and Shelley, this was something of an eye-opener, and it is hoped that this will prove to be of great use to future scholars embarking on an analysis of the historical development of contemporary Traditional Witchcraft and its nineteenth-century antecedents.

Concluding thoughts:

To their credit, it seems apparent that the editors have sought to embrace a fairly diverse spectrum of different approaches on the subject of "Traditional Witchcraft" within this volume; some authors have sought to provide scholarly analyses of the movement and its historical development, while others have instead endeavoured to accumulate information from a wide range of sources which can inspire the practices of contemporary magico-religionists. Others still have attempted to embrace a highly emic interpretation of particular forms of symbolism, while a few have instead offered very personal descriptions of their own practices and world-views. Alongside such differences in approach, there are also (to my mind) differences in many other ways; some articles are written very clearly, others in a wonderfully poetic manner. Some are evidently a great deal more intellectually sophisticated than those situated around them. Some I deem to be very good, others less so; as an academic whose great interest is in the historical development of these magico-religious traditions, clearly certain entries are going to appeal more strongly to me, while other readers with very different interests might have views that are very different to my own. 

One point that I feel that I should raise, perhaps a little pedantically, is that there is a great disparity in referencing throughout the volume; when citing a work many of the contributors make reference merely to the author and book's title, whereas those who were academically trained have provided fuller, more satisfying references including places of publication and page numbers. In my opinion, a standardisation of such referencing in the latter manner would have helped the book attain a more unitary feel and would have made further reading a little easier. 

As has come to be expected from Three Hands Press, the quality of the published tome is praiseworthy; a beautifully designed hardback, it contains an array of wonderfully evocative illustrations by Timo Ketola, which fit within the distinctly “dark” artistic aesthetic which has become common within the Traditional Craft milieu. At $58.50 for a standard hardcover and $380 for a special edition, it isn't going to be affordable for everyone (and those are direct-from-publisher prices), but perhaps a cheaper edition might be made available in time; certainly, I can envision there being a fairly wide sector of the esoteric market who would be interested in this volume, making a paperback release potentially financially viable. The tome will be of great interest to anyone who describes themselves as a "Traditional Witch" or who is sympathetic to that particular current of esoteric practice. Many Wiccans might find it an interesting introduction to forms of modern-day religious Witchcraft which differ from their own. Similarly, many academics specialising in both the history of European magical beliefs and/or in the study of Western esotericism will no doubt find it a fascinating read and could use it as source material for further research. I certainly wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to either scholar or practitioner, or indeed (as is increasingly common) to scholar-practitioners.

What to me this book makes abundantly clear is that there is not one singular “Traditional Witchcraft”, but many different traditions which situate themselves under this encompassing rubric. In the pages of Hands of Apostasy, there are various different magico-religious world-views on display; Draco's depiction of the Old Craft as a survival of pre-Christian shamanism is clearly quite distinct from Chumbley's description of it as a survival of nineteenth-century cunning lodges. I for one thought it a positive sign that the editors and publishers allowed this to be the case; they could quite easily have chosen to push a Sabbatic Craft-dominated image of the Traditional Craft that eclipsed any and all alternatives. (The only publicly-prominent tradition of the Old Craft that was not represented was the Clan of Tubal Cain, which is the name used by the various groups which trace a pedigree back to Cochrane.) Traditional Witchcraft is a burgeoning and growing movement within the broad current of Western esotericism, one which will likely go from strength to strength over coming years, aided by the publication of volumes such as this one. That being the case, it is hoped that further academics will join the likes of myself and Elwing in examining this movement, studying its beliefs and practices, and in particular its early development, so that hopefully we can eventually develop an accurate and nuanced understanding of how today's Traditional Witchcraft emerged from the folk magical traditions of yesteryear. 

Bibliography: 

Doyle White, Ethan. 2010. “The Meaning of 'Wicca': A Study in Etymology, History and Pagan Politics.” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 185–207.

Doyle White, Ethan. 2011. “Robert Cochrane and the Gardnerian Craft: Feuds, Secrets and Mysteries in Contemporary British Witchcraft.” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 33–52.

Doyle White, Ethan. 2013. “An Elusive Roebuck: Luciferianism and Paganism in Robert Cochrane's Witchcraft.” Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 75–101.

Hutton, Ronald. 1999. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morris, Anne. 2013. “But to Assist the Soul's Interior Revolution: The Art of Andrew Chumbley, the Cult of the Divine Artist, and Aspects of the Sabbatic Craft”, in Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold, ed. Serpent Songs: An Anthology of Traditional Craft. pp. 173–187. Location not specified: Scarlet Imprint.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

New Publication: Book review of Bron Taylor's "Avatar and Nature Spirituality" for Nova Religio

Check out the latest issue of Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions (vol. 18, no. 2) to grab yourself a copy of my latest published book review; for those with access, it is available here at JSTOR. The review in question looks at Bron Taylor's edited volume, Avatar and Nature Spirituality, which was published by Wilfred Laurier University Press back in 2013. While I'm really not a fan of the Avatar movie, it does raise many interesting questions for the study of what Catherine Albanese has termed “nature religion” as well as for what Taylor himself has termed “dark green religion”. In depicting an alien species of hunter-gatherers, it creates a unique belief-system for them, which is somewhat pantheistic and nature-venerating in orientation. Further, as with other prominent science-fiction creations like Star Trek and Star Wars, Avatar has launched a fandom who often express spiritual viewpoints regarding the film and its fictional world, while members of established religious groups have reacted in various different ways to it and to its anti-imperialist, environmentalist message. This book represents one of a number of new publications to begin exploring these areas, adding to the fascinating and burgeoning field of religion and film.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

That Friggin' Paper is Now Available For Free - But For a Few Days Only!

As I'm sure that the majority of academics can attest, it's always nice when other folks read, appreciate, and even share your work, particularly when those folks happen to be complete strangers seemingly operating outside of the ivory towers. Thus, I was delighted to find that my recent paper on "The Goddess Frig: Reassessing an Anglo-Saxon Deity" was referenced in a post about "Friday" here at the Irregular Times (no, I'd never heard of it either, but it seems interesting). I'm not sure that the post accurately represents my argument, particularly given that it mixes up the Norse deity Frigg with the proposed Anglo-Saxon goddess Frig (something quite contrary to the intentions of my paper), but still - it's great that people are reading my work!

And that brings me on the fact that it has recently been announced that the latest issue of Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural - in which my paper was published - will be available here on JSTOR for free up until Sunday 27 October in honour of Open Access Week. After that, however, the paywall goes back up. So for anyone out there who would be really interested in reading the paper but couldn't legitimate paying a fee to do so, this is your lucky day; go download it!

Saturday, 4 October 2014

New Publication: "The Goddess Frig: Reassessing an Anglo-Saxon Deity" in Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural

Apologies for posting again so soon after my previous post (and on a rather similar topic to boot), but I've just come upon some news that – for myself at least – is tremendously exciting. The Pennsylvania State University Press have recently published the latest edition of Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural (vol. 3, no. 2), which is devoted to the theme of “Old Gods and Ancient Ones”. As those familiar with me and my work can testify, I have a great fascination for the deities of the past and the manner in which they have been received, interpreted, and venerated once again by people in the present. As such, after reading the journal's initial call for papers I submitted a piece for consideration – “The Goddess Frig: Reassessing an Anglo-Saxon Deity” – which I'm pleased to say was scrutinised by two peer-reviewers, deemed worthy of publication, and is now available for others to read! Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, the paper critically examines what we know about this Early Medieval deity, and (more importantly) what we think we know about her. As I put it in the paper's abstract:

This article critically examines the evidence for the existence of the Anglo-Saxon goddess Frig, exploring toponyms, day names, Old English textual sources, archaeology, and comparisons with continental Germanic mythologies. Challenging previous assertions that she was the consort of the god Woden and was associated with love and motherhood, it furthermore contends that this scholarly misinterpretation of the deity has had wider repercussions, affecting the way that contemporary Pagans interpret this particular divinity. Ultimately, it argues that far less can be said about Frig with any certainty than has been previously supposed, suggesting that a case can even be made that she had never existed as a deity in Anglo-Saxon England at all.

For me, the particular importance of this work is twofold. First, I think it is one of my two best publications, in terms of how it is written and its potential impact and influence. Second, it represents my first research-based publication within the fields of Anglo-Saxon and Early Medieval Studies, an area that I am now devoting increasing amounts of time to as a result of my doctoral studies in Early Medieval archaeology at the UCL Institute of Archaeology (which I started last week!). I'm afraid that the publishers aren't handing out free copies, but for those interested individuals with institutional access, you can download a PDF from either ProjectMuse or JSTOR.

New publication: Book review of Bintley and Shapland's "Trees and Timber in Anglo-Saxon England" for Time and Mind.

Academic publishers Taylor & Francis have just brought out the latest edition of Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture (vol. 7, iss. 3). Aside from the fact that it's a really interesting and thought-provoking journal in general, I would also recommend this edition as it contains a new book review authored by yours truly. The review in question is devoted to Michael D.J. Bintley and Michael G. Shapland's edited volume on Trees and Timber in Anglo-Saxon England, published last year by Oxford University Press; a pioneering anthology exploring both the symbolic/ritualistic and pragmatic role that wood played in this period. For those interested (and who have institutional or other such access to the journal), check out the review here.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Request from Dmitry Galtsin

Head honcho of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies and the face behind the Letter from Hardscrabble Creek blog, Chas S. Clifton - whom I interviewed here back in December 2012 - has just asked me to pass on this link to an indiegogo appeal from Dmitry Galtsin, a researcher in the Rare Books Department of the Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Galtsin has had a paper on “The Divine Feminine in the Silver Age of Russian Culture and Beyond” accepted by the American Academy of Religion for their annual conference, which is due to take place in San Diego, California in November. Problematically, Galtsin finds himself unable to pay the $1300 to cover his expenses, and is thus hoping that sympathetic people across the world will help contribute to this sum. Although scholars of Pagan studies on the whole don't seem to be a particularly wealthy bunch, they should nevertheless recognise the importance of building a dialogue between scholars operating in the Western world and their counterparts in Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation, in order to better understand and appreciate the growing multiplicity that exists within the phenomenon of contemporary Paganism. Arguably this is even more important in the current climate of growing political tensions between NATO and Russia.

Friday, 19 September 2014

An Interview with Dr. Dylan Burns

A few months ago I attended the "New Antiquities" conference over at the Free University of Berlin, co-organised by Dr. Dylan Burns (see his academia.edu profile), who has kindly agreed to be this month's interviewee here at Albion Calling! Currently a research associate at Leipzig University in Germany, Dr. Burns is a specialist in the ancient religions that we now know as Gnosticism, having previously gained a PhD studying the subject at Yale University. As well as having produced a variety of research articles on the subject, his first book, Apocalypse of the Alien God, has recently been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Furthermore, he is a co-director and founding member of the Network for the Study of Ancient Esotericism, and takes an active interest in contemporary religious usages of ancient Gnostic texts. Here, he talks about his life and career, and gives us an insight into a fascinating area of study that I must admit to knowing very little about.

Image provided by Dr. Burns
EDW: Born in the city of Rochester, New York, you were then raised in Jacksonville, Florida and Boulder, Colorado by Zen Buddhist parents. This being the case, I'd like to ask what the formative influences were that led to you becoming an academic specialist in religious studies and focusing your research on the enigmatic field of “Gnosticism?

DB: My parents met as very serious students of the early wave of Sanbo-Kyodan Zen that was transplanted to the United States in the 1960s. It is a structured, hierarchical, and patriarchal lay tradition, but also emphasizes independence, particularly as a path to powerful experiences of personal insight (kenshō). For many years I thought Zen had little effect on my upbringing. Yet when I was 25, I read a monastic text in Coptic—the Rules of Pachomius, I believe—and it hit me: “hey! These people are just like my parents!” So it was through my study of Christian monasticism that I realized that monastic elements of Zen had formed the contours of our home life. Yet I have also been circumambulating the fringes of Judaism and Christianity as long as I can remember: My mother is of Jewish ethnicity (her father fled Germany in 1938) and all my maternal aunts and cousins are practicing Jews. On the other hand, I attended Christian elementary schools as a boy, so I had to learn to pray, sing hymns at chapel, and, of course, read and discuss the Bible.

As a teenager in Boulder, Colorado, I devoted myself to learning about East Asian languages and literature, especially Japanese. Yet when I got to college, and I was forced to drop my Japanese course, due to a chance (providential?) scheduling conflict. The only class I could fit into the newly-empty slot was “Worlds of Early Christianity,” a topic in which I thought I had no interest whatsoever. At the end of the second week, the lecture on the Fourth Gospel segued into the Apocryphon of John and the Gnostic texts discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. It completely blew my mind. I walked out of that hall and knew that I wanted to study Gnosticism. To my parents’ horror, I quit Japanese, and began studying Greek, German, and topics in Religious Studies. They’ve forgiven me, not least because Gnosticism, in the words of Dr. Michael Kaler, was like a “paranoid Buddhism”—although I would say “paranoid Zen”! It was a school of thought that arose within a deeply hierarchical and patriarchal tradition, but seems to have attracted individuals who distrusted some of these hierarchies, instead emphasizing moments of awareness, and acknowledging the alienation that an insightful human being can experience in this chaotic world. So of course I found myself interested in Gnosticism! It’s a convoluted path to Nag Hammadi, but it’s mine. 

EDW: After gaining a BA in religion from Reed College, Portland in 2003, and then an MA in religious studies from the University of Amsterdam in 2004, you went on to gain your PhD in religious studies from Yale University in 2011; what was it that your doctoral research devoted to ?

DB: Despite my “conversion” to Gnostic studies, in my Bachelor’s studies I focused on Greek literature and philosophy—particularly a technical, later school of Greek thought often called “Neoplatonism.” In Amsterdam I explored other ancient religious and philosophical currents which are associated with Neoplatonism but do not fit well into our tidy category of “academic” philosophy, such as theurgy, the Hermetic literature, and Gnosticism. Thus I was brought back to the Nag Hammadi texts, which are replete with all kinds of Gnostic, Hermetic, Platonic, and apocalyptic literature. I went to Yale to acquire the requisite training one needs to become a Nag Hammadi specialist, diving into Biblical studies, theology, church history, Roman history, and, of course, languages dead and alive, particularly Coptic (the final stage of ancient Egyptian, in which the Nag Hammadi texts are written) and Greek. 

EDW: Although you were born, bred, and (predominantly) educated in the United States, you have since crossed the pond to join us here in Europe, taking up a position at Leipzig University in Germany. How did this international career trajectory come to pass and do you feel that there is a noticeable difference between the academic cultures of the two continents ?

DB: I went to Amsterdam for my MA for two reasons: I had been told it was a place where I could pursue my study of Neoplatonism from the standpoint of ancient religions (rather than academic philosophy), and because, at the time (2003), it was very affordable indeed when compared to American MA programs. There and later, in my doctoral studies, I noticed that scholars from the Continent had a distinct advantage over most Anglophones in terms of their mastery of research languages, especially the ancient ones we need to understand our primary sources. I figured the best way to overcome my linguistic failings was to spend some time living and working abroad. Between my time in the Netherlands and then as an exchange student in Heidelberg, Germany (2009–10), I found I enjoyed many aspects of daily life in Europe, and I forged many strong friendships throughout Central and Northern Europe. So when I finished my doctoral studies in 2011, I was very happy to take up European postdoctoral work, first in Copenhagen and now in Leipzig.

There are so many differences between academic lives on the two sides of the pond, and within Europe itself. Each nation’s academic culture has its advantages and disadvantages. Many of the clichés are true: teaching is increasingly all-important in the USA, while technical skills and research are generally prized more in Europe; hierarchy is generally a bigger deal on the Continent, while American professors are very often on a first-name basis with their students and colleagues. Unfortunately, the serious problems plaguing academic culture are universal. Wherever you go, humanities are being defunded, and long-term positions in the university are increasingly hard to find. Nobody is really quite sure what the “right” career path looks like anymore. Here a larger socioeconomic difference between Europe and the USA must be noted: strong social welfare systems mitigate the risk of pursuing a career in the humanities, just as with art and music. If your postdoc or adjunct position leaves you out in the cold, you’re in less trouble here than there. 

EDW: Earlier this year, the University of Pennsylvania Press brought out your first solo book, Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism. Could you tell us more about this project and how you came about authoring it ?

DB: Even during my BA years I was interested in the relationship between myth and philosophy—more specifically, of philosophizing through narrative. Later, I read about the so-called “Platonizing” Sethian apocalypses of Nag Hammadi—texts that use the genre and literary traditions of Jewish apocalypses (i.e., revelatory narratives like Daniel or 1 Enoch), but whose content is replete with the jargon and conceptual framework of later Platonism (what is often called “Neoplatonism”). This is a sui generis literature that at once tastes intensely of two worlds of thought mutually exclusive for most scholars: technical Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian pseudepigrapha. I wanted to understand why on earth someone would write a “Platonizing” apocalypse. In Apocalypse of the Alien God, I offer an answer to this question, and evaluate the significance of this rather bizarre literature for the history of philosophy and religion—and they are significant, as these texts contributed enormously to the “parting of the ways” between Christian and non-Christian (or “Pagan,” if you will) Platonists. After the “Platonizing” apocalypses circulated in a third-century philosophical seminar and caused a fuss, non-Christian Platonists came to distinguish themselves entirely from their Christian counterparts both on philosophical grounds and as a social enterprise. In terms of intellectual history, I argue, this is when Pagan and Christian worldviews split for good. Conversely, this Sethian literature belongs to a distinct Gnostic literary tradition whose origins and contours I call into question, particularly regarding its relationship to Jewish mystical literature. So these “Platonizing” apocalypses are interesting for historians of Judaism, as well. 

EDW: You have also looked to some extent at some of the modern movements which are sometimes covered under the broad category of “Neo-Gnosticism”, publishing a paper examining New Age and Neo-Gnostic commentaries on the Gospel of Thomas. Do you have a particular research interest in the Neo-Gnostic movement and how do you see this as relating to the study of ancient Gnosticism ?

DB: Neo-Gnosticism (perhaps “contemporary Gnosticism” is a better term for it?) is a great, undiscovered country just crying for doctoral students to map it out. Academic study of it is practically non-existent, although it is beginning to pop up on the radars of scholars in several disciplines, notably New Religious Movements and Western Esotericism. How it relates to the study of ancient Gnosticism is complex. Many of my colleagues in Nag Hammadi Studies are ambivalent about the fact that there exist many people who consume the translations and studies we produce in the service of their personal spiritual edification. The roots of this ambivalence are diverse—some dislike “Neo-Gnosticism” due to their own religious or ideological proclivities, while others distance themselves from popular scholarship in hopes of seeming more technically astute—but it is all very silly, because the popular interest in Gnostic literature (for whatever reason) is one of the primary reasons that Gnosticism is a subject that merits historical study in the first place! Professional scholars with technical knowledge about ancient Gnosticism and Nag Hammadi have enormous potential to contribute to the study of how these ideas and texts are being received and used today. It is my hope that they will use this potential, ideally in concert with their colleagues who work on contemporary religious life. Co-organizing the New Antiquities workshop was an attempt to build a little momentum in that direction. 

EDW: What projects are you currently working on, and are there others on the horizon that we should be keeping an eye out for?

DB: Aside from the usual studies on Gnosticism, Nag Hammadi, and the apocalypses, I have three projects in development. One is a book project that I began during my postdoc at the University of Copenhagen, which will deal with the emergence of what I would call a particularly Christian concept of divine providence in the first three centuries CE. Providence is a fascinating concept, because it is used to articulate fundamental philosophical problems of human existence—our experiences of a personal relationship with god, of evil, of free will. I have several studies on this in the pipeline, and hope to publish a book in the next few years. I am also editing two collections of essays. The first is an issue of Aries: Journal for the Study of Esotericism, which will address the problem of “esotericism and antiquity.” It is my hope that the issue will clarify, through case studies, whether or not the term “esotericism” is useful for scholars in ancient studies, and, conversely, what scholars of Western Esotericism can learn from specialists in antiquity. The second collection of essays will be the volume of papers from the New Antiquities conference (discussed below). 

EDW: You are a founding member, and current co-director (along with Sarah Veale) of the Network for the Study of Ancient Esotericism (NSEA), one of the various thematic networks that is associated with the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE). What brought about the formation of the NSEA and how did you come to be co-director ? Furthermore, what do you see as the importance of its role in encouraging the investigation of such ancient esoteric currents as Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, and Hermetism ?

DB:Western Esotericism” as a phenomenon could be largely described as emerging from the modern reception history of a very particular body of ancient Platonic and Gnostic literature, yet very few students of Western Esotericism have taken much time to read this material extensively, much less in the original languages. So NSEA was founded initially as a way to just take stock of who was interested in scholarship on Esotericism but also working on antiquity, and get people connected. This remains one of its two chief purposes. The other purpose came about later, when Dr. Egil Asprem [EDW: who was interviewed here in November 2013] put me in touch with Sarah Veale, a plucky student of the classics with a strong background in web design, and thus ancientesotericism.org was born. The goal for the site is to serve as a research portal to the dizzying array of online tools one can use to study ancient materials associated with “Western Esotericism,” whether we are talking about Gnostic texts, magical papyri, or the Dead Sea Scrolls. My guess is that there are lots of people out there who would like to go a little deeper into these and other subjects, but are a little bewildered as to where to begin, or whose bookmarks are out-of-date—so my hope is that the site gives them a leg up. I certainly learn a lot just by updating it. We also post information about pertinent conferences and publications. 

EDW: In June 2014 you co-organised a workshop at the Freie Universität Berlin with Almut-Barbara Renger on the subject of “New Antiquities: Transformations of the Past in the New Age and Beyond. I of course was at that conference, and have offered my reflections on it elsewhere on my blog. What brought about the decision to organise it and what do you hope that it achieved ?

DB: Reception-history of antiquity is Prof. Renger’s specialty, so I was intrigued by this when we first met, given my longstanding interest in the popular reception of the Nag Hammadi literature. I was hoping to gather people working on contemporary alternative religious groups who authorize themselves with reference to ancient Mediterranean religions (e.g., “Neo-Pagans” and “Neo-Gnostics,” amongst others), and to begin a conversation about such phenomena and where they come from. I was happy to discover that many who participated in the workshop also had some (at times strong) background in philology and/or archaeology, which meant that we were often able to get into technical details about the ancient sources themselves even as we discussed how modern practitioners deal with them. Needless to say, I also learned a lot myself, as much regarding the reception of scholarship in archaeology in contemporary Pagan religion, as regarding Neo-Gnosticism. These and related trajectories of research have potential to be very fruitful indeed, so it was—and remains—exciting to pursue them along with the other participants in the workshop. 

EDW: I like to end my interviews here at Albion Calling by asking my interviewees where they see the future of their subject heading. That being the case, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the future of research into Gnosticism and the Western esotericism(s) of antiquity, as well as the study of “Neo-Gnosticisms?

DB: We are witnessing the early stages of a growth spurt in each of these subfields. “Gnosticism” as a field suffered something of a “Nag Hammadi hangover” in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, but now there are many, many younger scholars working with the topic with great energy and insight. Old paradigms are being reformulated or overturned outright, even as new texts are being discovered and edited. “Esotericism” in antiquity, meanwhile, is only just becoming something people are talking about, since scholarship on Western Esotericism has focused almost entirely on the Renaissance and beyond. Yet it is my sense that there is a great interest amongst scholars dealing with ancient sources in formulating an efficacious use for the term “esoteric” to deal with some of the sources we work on which just happen to be instrumental to the development of the currents that some would say fall under the rubric of “Esotericism” today. Conversely, others are interested in showing why “esotericism” is the wrong word to talk about certain ancient currents sometimes referred to as “esoteric.” So that conversation is just starting up. As for “Neo-Gnosticism,” the sky’s the limit, but if it is to really take off, I imagine we would have to see some serious collaborative work between the historians of antiquity, on the one hand, and anthropologists and historians of new religions movements, on the other. In the words of David St. Hubbins: And why not? 

EDW: Thank you Dylan for this wonderful interview; I wish you all the best in future!