At the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion

I returned to Israel a few days ago, after attending my first AAR Annual Meeting, which took place this year in sunny San Diego, on the southern coast of California. For those who are not familiar with this yearly conference organized by the American Academy of Religion, I should note that it is the largest gathering of its kind, containing about 1,000 academic sessions, receptions and other events with an average of 10,000 scholars in attendance !!!  Many researchers I know therefore shy away from it and prefer to present their papers only in smaller scale conferences, devoted to specific sub-themes in the study of religion. While I enjoy such intimate events immensely, I do warmly recommend attending the AAR Annual Meeting to all those interested in religion and spirituality.

I arrived at San Diego after a long (long…) journey from Israel, which included a flight to Los Angeles (with a stop over in Zurich) and then the southern bound Pacific Surfliner train service. When traveling to or from San Diego, be sure to sit on the ocean side to get some fantastic views of the Californian coast. I stayed at the local HI youth hostel, a clean and hospitable establishment which is situated right downtown in San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter. I expected to be the only scholar in residence, surrounded by 20-year-old backpackers, but many of the people staying there were presentong at the conference and, like me, could not afford a room at the local Hilton, Hyatt or Marriott.

Next morning I arrived at the nearby San Diego Convention Center – a huge complex of meeting rooms, exhibit halls, ball rooms and what have you, which also serves as home to the annual Comic-Con International Convention. The center was buzzing with thousands of academics, chatting, hurrying up the escalators to various sessions, or browsing through the titles at a gigantic book exhibition. I took advantage of the generous conference discounts, and bought some interesting titles, some of which I had my eye on for months: Paganistan: Contemporary Pagan Community in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, by Murphy Pizza; Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages, by Stephen A. Mitchell; Pagan Family Values: Childhood and the Religious Imagination in Contemporary American Paganism, by S. Zohteh Kermani, which deals with second-generation Pagan kids growing up in Pagan families; and an anthology on Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, edited by Kaarina Aitamurto and Scott Simpson. Goodie, Goodie, Goodie !!!

As one of less than a handful of Pagan Studies scholars from Israel almost all of the academic materials I use come from abroad, and particularly from the United States. It therefore made me very happy to meet some of them at the conference for the first time – Chas Clifton, Wendy Griffin, Sarah Pike, Jone Salomonsen, Sabina Magliocco, as well as Aussie Doug Ezzy. Like a typical fan boy I brought copies of their books with me, which they were kind enough to sign… We continued to hang out together in and between sessions, and on one night headed to a special Pagan Studies Group dinner at a local Italian restaurant. Chas Clifton, who co-chairs the group, had kindly bought me dinner at a nice Korean restaurant the night before 🙂 There was also a lovely little reception at the Grand Hyatt held by the AAR’s New Religious Movement’s Group and Nova Religion, the Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, in which I, again, met good friends and colleagues – Manon Hedenborg-White, Fredrik Gregorius, J Gordon Melton and Catherine Wessinger. I also met Francesca Tronetti, who writes a PhD dissertation on a female monastic Goddess community in the Catskill Mountains called the Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater.

And there were also the academic sessions – one thousand of them, with dozens taking place simultaneously at any time. Luckily, the conference’s app – which included all the information on sessions, presenters, visitors and book exhibitors – made it easy to find your way around the different building and construct your own agenda. I started my day with a helpful rountable discussion organized by Publishers Weekly on turning one’s dissertation into a book. Then I hopped between lectures at the Pagan Studies Group session on ‘The New Animism‘ and the Religion and Science Fiction Group session, which contained a presentation on the material culture of sacred and hi-tech weapons in Joss Weadon‘s The Avengers. Then came a fascinating ‘Wildcard Session’ on Folklore, Religion and the Supernatural, with a talk by the wonderful Jeffrey J. Kripal, David Hufford and Sabina Magliocco.

The next morning featured a lovely joint session of the Pagan Studies, Gay Men and Religion, Lesbian-Feminist Issues in Religion, Men, Masculinities and religion, and the Religious Conversions Groups. It contained a talk by Leigh Ann Hildebrand (Graduate Theological Union) conversion to Judaism in the United States by people who self-identify as LGBT, queer, linky, non-monogamous or polyamorous. Fascinating stuff!!!  There was also a presentation by Rachel Morgain (Australian National University) on gender exploration in the feminist Pagan tradition known as Reclaiming, in which I learned about new trans./queer deities called ‘The Mysterious Ones’. Philip Francis (Manhattan College) gave an interesting talk on the role of sexual experiences in deconversion from Evangelical Christianity. I was amazed by his description of one interviewee who, as he achieved orgasm during the first time he made love to his girlfriend, became consumed by guilt and fear because he thought that the amazing feeling he was experiencing was actually his eternal soul living his body and that he is damned to everlasting hell….

My own presentation later that afternoon focused on the Israeli Pagan community and the discourse maintained by Israeli Pagans on questions of community-building and the attainment of religious rights. Israeli Pagans, I maintain, may employ a community-building discourse, but at the same time they constantly fear the perceived negative consequences of public exposure. They see the bond between (Jewish) religion and the state in Israel as a main factor in the intolerance and even persecution that they expect from the government and from Haredim (“Ultra-Orthodox” Jews).

Monday contained a good session by the Western Esotericism Group on the subject of ‘Lived Esoterisicm’, followed by a continuation of the New Animisn session by the Pagan Studies Group. On Tuesday Morning, just before I headed back to San Diego’s train station, I caught Michelle Mueller’s great presentation on sacred BDSM among Contemporary Pagans. Yummy !! 🙂

Wicca and the Israeli connection

Most research into Neopaganism focuses on the British Isles and on the North American subcontinent, and that’s partly the reason that led me to research the Israeli Pagan community. Israel is often the last place on earth in which Pagans from Europe and North America expect to find fellow Witches, Druids or followers of Asatru. Israeli Pagans themselves time and again feel as though they inhabit the far (far) periphery of the Neopagan world, and some often perform more spiritual pilgrimages to sacred sites in Britain and Ireland, than to ruins of pagan temples and cities in Israel.

It is interesting though, that while modern-day Israel occupies virtually no place (or at least none of importance) in the mind of most Contemporary Pagans worldwide, some early British Wiccans and other figures which influenced the Wiccan movement spent considerable periods of time in the region.

We start our journey with Margaret Murray, who died in 1963, age 100. Murray was a noted Egyptologist and Archaeologist – the first woman to have been trained in the profession in England. Her teacher and mentor was Sir Flinders Petrie, of University College London – the father of modern Archeology. Modern Pagans, however, know her due to her writings on the European witch-trials period. These formed the basis for the foundation of the myth connecting Wicca with the ‘witches’ burned at the stake by the Inquisition during the Middle Ages (Murray even wrote the preface for Gerald Gardner‘s Witchcraft Today in 1954), which persisted long after the Murray thesis was debunked by a stream of focused historical treatments of the subject. Did Murray herself believe in witchcraft? There are conflicting opinions. During her lifetime it was argued that she cast a spell on a colleague whose appointment she abhorred, but Murray herself objected to ‘superstition’ in her autobiography and presented her argument throughout using a rationalistic approach. The truth will probably never be known…

What’s certain is that during the 1930’s Murray joined archaeological digs in British-mandate Palestine under Petrie.With Petrie heading the excavations at Tall al-Ajjul (In today’s Gaza Strip), Murray arrived to the famous city of Petra (In present-day Jordan), and later wrote on the digs carried there in her Petra, the Rock City of Edom (1939) and A Street in Petra (1940). In Tall al-Ajjul Murray found grooved stones which she believed to have been used for certain magical aims. World War II disrupted Murray’s excavations in the region. She returned to England, but Petrie himself died in Jerusalem in 1942, where he is buried to this day.

And what about old Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), founder and propagator of Wicca? Well, as many of my readers know, Gardner served as a colonial official in the rubber plantations of Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Upon retiring in 1932, Gerald and his wife, Donna, boarded a ship at Singapore – destination Britain. But while Donna stayed on board all the way to England, Gerald disembarked in Port Said, and headed to Gaza after surveying the ancient ruins of Egypt. Gardner reached Tall al-Ajjul, where he received a tour of the dig site by Petrie. Gerald was impressed by the way in which Petrie managed to bring the site back to life through his descriptions. He was interested in a long secret passage which was discovered at the location, containing Irish gold. Philip Heselton, Gardner’s biographer, estimates that he spent a few weeks working with Petrie at Tall al-Ajjul before setting sail to France, and then to England. Gardner returned to British Mandate Palestine in 1936. This time he joined the excavation of the biblical city Lachish, which was one of the most important cities in the Kingdom of Judea until its destruction by the Babylonian Empire in 587 BC. One of the discoveries which drew Gardner to Lachish was the dual temple to Yahweh and Astarte. Gerald then traveled to Jerusalem for Easter, and returned to England through Turkey, Greece, Belgrade, Budapest, Vienna and Nuremberg.

By the way, Jack Bracelin, a member of Gardner’s original Bricket Wood coven who is mostly remembered today as the official author of Gardner’s first 1960 biography (Gerald Gardner: Witch), served as a young man in the Palestine Police Force during the British Mandate period.

The last figure I shall present here is that of Stewart Farrar (1916-2000). As most of my readers would know, Farrar joined the coven of Alex and Maxine Sanders (of the Alexandrian Wiccan tradition) during 1969, and in 1971 wrote What Witches do for Alex. Stewart bonded with with fellow initiate Janet Owen, and together the two founded their own coven and eventually married. Their co-authored books (such as A Witches Bible, The Witches Goddess and The Witches God) are some of the most known and cherished among British Wiccans to this day. However, as it turns out, if Stewart Farrar had not visited the region during the mid-1960s, Wiccan history might have been significantly altered. Before he met Alex for the first time, Farrar maintained a brilliant career as a reporter, screenplay and radio drama writer (he worked as a reporter for Reuters and Reveille magazine, and in 1968 even won a Screenwriter’s Guild award). During the mid-1960’s he worked on a series of documentaries focusing on the Holy Land titled Journey of a Lifetime, for which he toured the length of the tiny state of Israel. Shooting also occurred in a Greek Orthodox monastery in the Golan Heights, then under Syrian control. When Farrar and one of the monks overlooked the majestic views atop the cliffs, the splendid sights stirred something within him…. He began finding interest in spirituality and ceased describing himself as an “interested agnostic”. Stewart then began to search actively for a deep, meaningful spiritual path. It was for this reason that the editor of Reveille sent Stewart to meet and interview Alex Sanders in 1969. If it wasn’t for his spiritual experience on the edge of the Golan Heights, Farrar would not have met Sanders, would not have adopted Wicca as his spiritual path, and certainly would not have authored the books which so successfully aided in its exposure to many thousands of spiritual seekers worldwide.

Sources:

Guerra, Elizabeth and Janet Farrar. 2013 [2008]. Stewart Farrar: Writer on a Broomstick. Cheltenham: Skylight Press.

Heselton, Philip. 2012. Witchfather: A Life of Gerald Gardner. Loughborough: Thoth Publications.

Murray, Margaret. 1963. My First Hundred Years. London: William Kimber.

Whitehouse, Ruth. 2013. “Margaret Murray (1986-1963): Pioneer Egyptologist, Feminist and First Female Archeology Lecturer”. Archeology International 16: 120-127.

The Magical Battle of Britain and Haj Amin al-Husseini

Recently I’ve been reading Alan Richardson‘s Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune: The Logos of the Aeon and the Shakti of the Age, which focuses on the relationship between these two giants of British occultism. The book itself is quite interesting and I warmly recommend it to anyone interested in these two fascinating figures.

While browsing through the book a few days ago I came across an interesting addition to the discourse on the ‘Magical Battle of Britain‘, which has been maintained for decades by British occultists and Pagans alike. WWII was of course fought in the real world, with real bombs, rifles and ammunition, but according to members of the occult milieu, it was fought on the astral plane as well. Immediately after the declaration of war, Dion Fortune began issuing a series of letters to members of her magical order, the Fraternity of the Inner Light, and organised a series of visualisations to formulate “seed ideas in the group mind of the race,” archetypal visions to invoke angelic protection and uphold British morale under fire. These letters have been edited into a volume and presented by Gareth Knight as The Magical Battle of Britain: The War Letters of Dion Fortune.

Gerald Garnder, propagator of Wicca – the religion of pagan witchcraft – wrote about an event that became an important part of the craft’s foundation myth, which he termed ‘Operation Cone of power’. According to Gardner, in 1940 a group of witches, which he was part of, gathered at night in the New Forest and carried out a ritual designed to ward off the Nazis from invading Britain by magical means. This supposedly included the casting of a ritual circle and the raising of a great ‘cone of power’ – a form of magical energy – at the direction of Hitler and his generals with the command of “you cannot cross the sea, you cannot cross the sea, you cannot come, you cannot come”.

Richardson’s book adds another name to the mix of illustrious occult names who aided in the Magical Battle of Britain – Christine Hartley, who was a member of Fortune’s Fraternity of the Inner Light. according to Richardson, Hartley told him “a lot about her experiences fighting the Nazis on the inner plane on a one-to-one basis, going ‘into the crystal’ and seeking out those foes threatening Britain on magical levels.” While Hartley claimed to “cope with German magicians”, she experienced “real trouble” with a man who “lay behind Hitler on the inner planes”. According to her, this was Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. You can see a photograph of his December 1941 meeting with Hitler here.

Al-Husseini’s opposition to the British peaked during the 1936-1939 Arab revolt in British Mandate Palestine, set against the background of the recommendation of the Peel Commission for a partition of Palestine into a small Jewish state (based on Jewish land ownership and population at the time), a residual Mandatory area, and a larger Arab state linked to Jordan. Al-Husseini then exiled to Beirut, Lebanon, and allied with the Axis powersNazi Germany and Fascist Italy – in the hope that their victory would drive the British and the Jews out of the area.

Returning to the issue at hand, Richardson recalls that Hartley said that al-Husseini’s mindset “was so alien to anything she had yet encountered, and was so personally inimical to things Western – especially British – that she sometimes feared for more than her life”. Al-Husseini eventually died in Beirut in 1974, and Hartley passed in 1985.

Now, putting the issue of ‘astral travels’ and ‘inner plane battles’ aside, I think this story provides a fascinating prelude into a somewhat neglected subject I hope to write about here very soon – Visits of early British Wiccans in the Holy land. So stay tuned if you fancy hearing more about it 🙂

My new article, and the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall

Hi everyone,

I just wanted to update you that I’ve recently published a new and interesting article in one of my most favorite academic journals: The Pomegranate – The International Journal of Pagan Studies. The article is titled “‘God Giving Birth’ – Connecting British Wicca with Radical Feminism and Goddess Spirituality During the 1970s-1980s: The Case Study of Monica Sjöö”. You can download it (for a fee) from The Pomegranate‘s Website here, or access the final draft version for free through my page on Academia.edu: https://telaviv.academia.edu/ShaiFeraro

What I have attempted to do in this article is to chart some of the ways in which ideas of radical feminism, Goddess Spirituality and Feminist Witchcraft – which originated in the United-states during the late 1960s and the 1970s before taking root in Britain – were introduced to British Wiccans during the latter half of the 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Several British-based radical feminists who combined their newfound political awareness with Goddess Spirituality acted as important conduits for the transference of these ideas. One such woman was the artist and Goddess Feminist Monica Sjöö (1938-2005), whose paintings and books on Goddess Spirituality are still influential today.

I was happy to learn that the good people of The Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall mentioned the article in their blog. In addition to some wonderful and unique exhibitions, the museum has a large library full of books, magazines and other documents on witchcraft and the occult. In 2011 I spent 9 days at the library as part of my PhD research, and some of the materials wound up in my Monica Sjoo article. I recommend both the exhibitions and the library to all those interested in the history of witchcraft and paganism and the wonderful scenery of Cornwall 🙂

My first blog entry + interview for the ‘Albion Calling’ blog

Welcome to my blog, everyone 🙂  This is my first attempt at writing an Internet blog, and I hope you will enjoy my occasional musings on my academic research or the news of the day.

I hope to share with you my thoughts on Modern Pagan religions, various modes of feminist Spiritualities, issues in the history of feminism, British, American and Israeli cultural history, identity politics, and whatever else catches my fancy.

For now, I wish to share with you my interview for Ethan Doyle White’s blog – Albion Calling  – where several other (much more) noted scholars of Pagan Studies have been interviewed in the past. We talked on several interesting subjects, such the role of women in British magical and Pagan subcultures from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth-century; a recent issue of the ‘Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review’ which I edited and is devoted to the alternative spiritualities of Israel; the place of Paganism in Israel; the impact of the academic boycott; and the international development of the growing field of Pagan studies. Had a great time doing this !! Thank you, Ethan 🙂

The interview can be seen here.

With every good wish,

Shai Feraro 🙂