If you take a look at my About page, you can see that I’m an academic as well as a magician and all around weirdo. I also recently declared myself a druid I’m trying it on and seeing how it fits. So far it works for me better than Wicca did. However, even in such a great overall community there’s still some anti-academic bias. And that, for obvious reasons, makes me feel a bit odd. So I thought I’d address that here, in a semi-regular series I’ve been considering for a while. So here’s the first entry in The Postmodern Druid.
So, what are the specific anti-academic biases I’ve noticed? Well, there are two in general, and a third that I want to talk about another time. Here, I’m interested in the general distrust of any academic source and the tendency to belittle academics in writing.
The first is, unfortunately, pretty natural historically. Academics are always interested in the truth (in general; some academics who, for instance, write about lobsters when they have no idea what lobsters are like… well, those aren’t interested in the truth). That means some academic work has ended up taking apart the claims of books popular within the neopagan movement generally. The one that bothers me the most is that, to this day, people still give credence to Margaret Murray’s thesis that there was an unbroken line of tradition stretching back into the past, wherein witches passed on the old religions and traditions, generation to generation, sometimes being burned at the stake for it.
There is absolutely no evidence for this thesis — and there never was. Murray doctored her information and, sometimes, just plain lied about things. Academics in her own lifetime pointed this out, though she enjoyed a brief heyday in historical studies.
It seems as though that story is important to some people, though. And, insofar as it’s a good story with emotional power, that’s ok. But it just didn’t happen historically. As Isaac Bonewits, famous American druid, pointed out in his book on witchcraft, Spanish Jews who didn’t flee Spain tried to keep to their religion, and within a few generations were basically Christian. They just thought they were Jewish. All the carefully hidden relics and images in their households were Christian rather than Jewish. So if a group with an incredibly ancient lineage can’t hold it together under persecution for a few centuries, how would witches do it for longer? This argument isn’t necessary, but it is interesting as a kind of test case.
Note that I’m not saying neopaganism or witchcraft in general is somehow the natural place for this kind of misleading pseudo-history. Every religion has tended to do it. But, as a postmodern druid, here’s my lesson about it: religions don’t need storied histories to be valid! Their utility does not originate from their histories. They gain histories as they are found to be useful. So there’s no need to place importance on the long, underground history of witchcraft, so long as it’s a good and powerful source of spiritual nourishment and empowerment for you, right now. Postmodernism is important to my piece here because it sort of allows anything useful to function, because everything is, on a theoretical level, a symbol (more on that in a future post).
This is a particularly academic view of religion, by the way. That leads into the second topic I wanted to discuss: the general belittling of academia in a wide variety of works. There are an incredible number of microaggressions throughout neopagan and druid writing. The most common form is to say something like “now that we know the history, we can talk about this thing. Note that we’re not using this in a dry, academic way, but instead engaging with the powerful symbols meaning of the work.” I’m paraphrasing something I’ve read and heard dozens of times before.
That phrasing, though? That phrasing that says we’re going to look at powerful symbols and meanings? That’s what academic work is. I’m a literature professor, and it baffles me to imagine what these writers imagine I’m doing with my time if I’m not enraptured with the symbols and meanings of works of myth, literature, and culture.
Here’s another example. I had a friend who was in no way a pagan. They once basically said they didn’t understand how Joyce scholars did their work, that they couldn’t possibly sit around all day and write about something they hated. This revealed something pretty important in the way academics are viewed by others: other people seem to think we just sort of arbitrarily choose our disciplines. Just because Bob can’t imagine Jane wanting to spend her life looking at the ways sexism is expressed in Regency era clothing doesn’t mean Jane doesn’t want to do that.
There’s not a lot of money, prestige, or fame in academic work, not really. But we choose to jump in anyway, because we love this stuff so much. So those Joyce scholars plugging away at Finnegan’s Wake? They love it. If they didn’t, they’d be writing on something else.
Finally, here’s a point related to both of these topics: an enormous amount of druid, Wiccan, and neopagan practices, stories, and rituals exist because of academic work. Gerald Gardner and Ross Nicholls, for instance, were fine academics who studied history, literature, religion, ritual, and tons of other things. You can listen to an excellent paper, by contemporary druid John Michael Greer, on exactly this topic, here. The description, definition, and synthesis of the symbols of druidry rely on hundreds of years of academic work, like archaeology, literary criticism, religious studies, psychology, and astronomy.
So, the ideas to take away here are that academia’s goal of intellectual rigor in no way invalidates practices and experiences, but in turn it does invalidate certain ideas about history that we must deal with. Belittling academics for not reading things for their powerful, emotional meanings is to badly mischaracterize academics and to forget that the act of learning about religious studies is, itself, an academic act.
And that’s about it for my soapbox.