Just over a week ago, I covered Cristina Odone’s vapid and inflammatory comment article in The Daily Telegraph on the decision to include Paganism as a possible topic of Religious Education classes in Cornish state schools by the county council. It was pretty well received by my fellow Pagans, but it was entirely ignored by Ms. Odone, despite my pestering her on twitter a little. So I headed off to my tribe’s Beltane celebration in Wiltshire, hoping that her silence indicated that the issue was ready to die quietly.
When I returned, however, I discovered that the shit was very much still being stirred. Rob Kerby, Senior Editor at Beliefnet, one of the largest English language multifaith blogs, had written an article entitled “What can the Third World teach us about witchcraft?” Kerby’s answer to this question is never unambiguously stated, but it seems to fly in the direction of witchcraft being nothing more than a base superstition that, in Africa and the Islamic world at least, is used to justify persecution and violence. Quotes from Odone’s article sit pride of place, crystalising her point that Paganism is an illegitimate faith not worthy of respect by monotheists, and that the recent rights Pagans have gained are nothing more than a conspiracy by milquetoast liberals who want to destroy good Christian values. Kerby naturally goes further, hinting that this same belief in witchcraft could lead to child abuse and witch hunts.
At the same time, the Telegraph has vomited out another ill-informed and bigoted anti-Pagan article, this time by Christopher Howse. Howse re-articulates many of the points of the Kerby article, revisiting the Cornwall schools topic with typical Telegraph bluster.
Howse’s problem with Paganism being included in the syllabus is twofold. Firstly, he argues that “Just as French lessons and maths lessons do not merely teach about French and maths but train children to speak the language and add up, so religious education has its practical application.” Presumably, Howse is also against teaching History in schools, for fear that young children might end up becoming Vikings.
Secondly, Howse states, “The other problem is that if paganism is taught alongside the religion that children’s parents practice at home, it implies that paganism is a religion just as well-founded as Presbyterianism or Islam. It’s like teaching Esperanto alongside French.” This is a strange point to make, given the fact that there are a great many Pagans in Cornwall; there are certainly more Pagans than Muslims in the county, if the fact that the Islamic Community Centre in Truro boasts itself as “Cornwall’s only Mosque” is anything to go by (contrast with Boscastle’s famous Witchcraft Museum, the three Pagan Federation Moots in the county and the numerous witchcraft practitioners and groups in Penzance, Bodmin and elsewhere).
Howse frames these bad educational analogies with two broader themes – firstly, he echoes Kerby by saying that “It seems there are now two kinds of witchcraft: the bad kind that black people believe in, and the kind that should be celebrated because it is believed in by Cornish people.” He concludes by parroting the age-old favourite of the seasoned witch-burner – the affirmation that there is no historical continuity between contemporary and ancient Paganism. Howse relates this specifically to the issue of Cornwall’s stone circles, which have featured prominently in this debate so far, as justification for the importance of Paganism in Cornwall’s heritage. “But nobody knows what standing stones represent.” Howse protests. “The astronomical, social, ritual, pacific or bloody uses they might have had are lost in prehistory. They might have been linked with spring flowers or with human sacrifice. No one knows.”
Such grand pronouncements about the dangers of witchcraft beliefs, our ignorance of the religious practices of our far ancestors, and the absolute discontinuity of pre and post-Christian spirituality are proof positive, if ever it was needed, that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Both Howse and Kerby draw on academic literature selectively to bolster a shamelessly pro-Christian agenda. As an anthropologist I have studied each of these themes in quite a bit of depth – the fact that I am still a Pagan should say something about the validity of Howse and Kerby’s assessment.
Firstly – witchcraft. Witchcraft accusations are indeed a widespread cultural phenomenon, and serve, as such anthropologists as Evans-Pritchard, La Fontaine and MacFarlane have argued in the past, as both an explanation for misfortune and making such misfortune meaningful by relating it to social concerns about negative forces, such as jealousy or malice. But, as Jason Pitzl-Waters has pointed out over at Wild Hunt, witchcraft accusations, in Africa especially, have been pushed to further violent excesses by the actions of Christian evangelists – with Christian dualism reframing the personal grievance-fuelled workings of a curse-wielder into a moral assault of cosmic scope. The same can certainly be said of Medieval Europe – although witchcraft was very much part of pre-Christian Roman culture; fear of infernal maleficium only reached its overzealous peak under the authority of the Christian churches.
In addition, I feel that Kerby and Howse’s articles don’t just mistakenly apportion blame onto Pagan shoulders, they also fundamentally miss the point of why present-day pagan occultists use the terms “witch” and “witchcraft” at all. Unlike the thoughtful priests and Enlightenment philosophers who attempted to end the violence and terror of witch trials by denying the existence of magic entirely, present-day Pagans attempt to avoid purges by redeeming the individuals and practices that often empowered them. Reflecting the Jungian process of reclaiming the Shadow by accepting it and learning from it, the witch is transformed from poisoner to prophetess, from hexer to healer. If a person is so jealous, lonely and isolated that they are willing to harm their fellows, we need to think about why, rather than hanging first and asking questions later. Contemporary European witchcraft attempts to hamstring superstitious hysteria by inviting us to re-cognize, rather than demonize, the figure of the witch.
As for Howse’s bold assertions concerning continuity, what this amounts to is little more than a piss-poor reading of the past fifty years of historical research into the origins of contemporary Paganism. It is not sufficient to simply hold up Murray as a straw man and knock her down without telling us whose gloves you are wearing when you do it. Ronald Hutton, a leading historian of British witchcraft and Paganism, was one of the major players in the systematic deconstruction of Murray’s claims, but as he points out in Triumph of the Moon, there are in fact four distinct streams linking ancient and modern Paganism – it’s just that an underground, organised witch cult is not one of them. Instead, high magic, folk magic, folk ritual and the love of classical art, poetry and philosophy have all contributed to the resurgence of Paganism in the modern age, and all have their roots in pre-Christian practices and beliefs. This does not constitute the sort of confessional or institutional continuity that Christianity and Islam can boast, but given the fact that Pagans tend to be wary of belief-related labels and formal institutions, it should be obvious that these things are not crucial articles of faith for us. Instead, it is the sort of loose, experientially motived tradition that you find in traditional religions the world over that characterizes both modern and ancient European Paganism, and links the two together. Paganism has not survived as a hidden form of “anti-Christianity” (as cool as that seems) into the modern age. It is its own kind of cultural assemblage, with its own lineage and patterns of authority that have to a great extent remained intact.
As for stone circles, we actually know a great deal about them, thanks to extensive archaeological research. We know they had astrological significance, being aligned to important points of the solar year, and that they were potentially used for rituals relating to the dead and possibly healing. If later European religious practices are anything to go by, they probably involved ritual processions and clockwise circumambulation. Steven Waller has suggested that the design of Stonehenge was inspired by interference patterns in sound. Regardless of their original function, subsequent generations to the builders have all placed their own interpretations on these ancient structures, and modern pagans are no different in this regard – much like early Christians building on pre-Christian religious sites. Exploring these shifting understandings and comparing them to contemporary archaeology would surely be an informative exercise for schoolchildren.
Howse, Odone, and Kerby all show an all-too widespread attitude amongst Christians; that denigrates anything that doesn’t fit within their own, narrow worldview. And because Christianity is so widespread, such odious opinions get far more airtime than they deserve, discouraging seekers and poisoning public sentiment. As a young person, I was put off pursuing my true spiritual calling because of angry old men like Howse telling everyone that Paganism was silly, even dangerous, superstitious nonsense. I fortunately have realized my mistake, but not after losing many years, trying to shoehorn my soul into a Christian mold. Although Christianity is a beautiful faith for many, it was profoundly incompatible with my own state of being, and left me closeted and self-hating. I feel it is up to Pagans and open-minded Christians to challenge individuals like Kerby, in order to make things that bit easier for people who are seeking the right spiritual path for themselves.