Our top story tonight: Jerry Falwell is still dead.
Moving on. I have always been a big fan of open book tests. That’s when, in high school and college, you are allowed to bring important books with you during a big test to help you answer questions. The theory is that for most subjects, memorizing information is less important than knowing where to look for that information when you actually need it. I think this is an excellent philosophy not just for school but for life itself. It also, conveniently, gives me a clever excuse for collecting probably more books than I actually need. You just never know when you’ll be faced with a pop quiz on any number of subjects, really. It’s best to be prepared.
As a Pagan, having a large reference library puts me in good company. Most Pagans I know are voracious readers with sizeable libraries. One of the first things I like to do when going to a friend’s house is to head for the shelves and side tables to see what books are there. More often than not, I’ll find a new book or two about Paganism in with the fiction, financial advice, and tarot for dummies books.
It is an odd time to be a Pagan. We have books written by all sorts of practitioners of different traditions, talking about their spirituality. We have writers who look at these books and write their own books drawing general conclusions about trends and so forth. Then we have writers who read both kinds of books, and comment on how and why people have come to the conclusions they have about the first people’s books. When I pick up any new book on Pagans nowadays, it’s as though I’m looking in a funhouse mirror with multiple reflections, and if I couldn’t look down and see my own body I’d get hopelessly lost.
This phenomenon of relentless self-observation is due to the fact that apparently we Pagans are part of a New Religious Movement (as opposed to a vestigal Stone Age religionâ€”but that may change again next decade, so stay tuned) which boasts among our number a large quantity of academics interested in studying New Religious Movements. In any given workshop or ritual these days, chances are that there is at least one insider/observer in attendance collecting data for her master’s thesis at Podunk University. In fact, I’d bet money that someday this very blog post will end up as a footnote supporting someone’s rigorous research suggesting that modern Pagans are ironic and enjoy making fun of others.
As an overeducated person myself yet not motivated enough to be a true academic, I find this trend amusing and instructive. I have several really smart friends who are academics, and I like to read at least the introductions of their books when they come out. I figure so long as I understand the general theme of the book and have a passing acquaintance with the table of contents, I will be well-prepared for any pop quiz on the subject that comes my way. This is especially true for my dear but (just between you and me) misguided friends who write about cyborg theory. But enough (please God) about cyborgs for now.
All this is really just an introduction to what is supposed to be the point of this whole post, namely that I have recently read an excellent book on Paganism that I would like to review here briefly. Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America by Chas Clifton (AltaMira, 2006) is a fascinating history of Paganism in the U.S., with a wide historical view yet particularly focused on the 1960s and 1970s.
Chas seems to have two main goals with this book. One is to expand on Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon, which gave a bang-up version of the history of modern Witchcraft from a British perspective, by delving more deeply into how the Craft changed when it came to North America. Somewhat akin to how African tribal music came over with the slaves, turned into jazz, and then was exported back to Africa to create even newer styles of music, Chas details how Paganism went from “the Old Religion” in the UK to “Nature Religion” once it took root here, and in turn changed the focus of British Paganism on its return.
The second goal I see in this book is to reclaim (ah, irony!) early Wiccan history from feminist revisionist Witches. Chas states, and rightly so, that once feminism met the Craft, and Z Budapest and Starhawk found their audience, not only did the tenor of the movement change, but so did its popular history. I really enjoyed the backstory he covers in great detail, from the Transcendentalists through Swedenborg, Theosophy, the Sierra Club and Earth Day in 1970, the Green Egg magazine and CAW, Wilhelm Reich and “orgone energy”, the SCA, right up to the point in 1979 when Margot Adler published her groundbreaking Drawing Down the Moon and Starhawk published The Spiral Dance. Anyone interested in exploring the scaffolding from which feminist Wicca launched itself would do well to delve into this thorough and well-organized history.
The two things I most abhor in academic books are a snotty attitude and bad writing. Happily, Chas’s book displays neither of these unfortunate tendencies. He thinks critically about his subject matter but does not indulge in excess criticism of many of the eclectic thinkers whose careers he chronicles. His writing is clear and precise, educated without being overly dense, detailed without lapsing into obscurity.
While on the whole this is an even-handed and much-needed portrait of early Wiccan history, I do detect a subtle note of pointedly taking some of the darlings of popular Wicca down a notch or two. Margot Adler, Isaac Bonewits, Tim Zell, Church of All Worlds, Feraferia and the ADF all get a mention in the glossary. But curiously, Starhawk is not mentioned, though she is referenced in the book as much as the others. I noticed this tendency too in the otherwise excellent Paganism Reader, edited by Chas Clifton and Graham Harvey. In this valuable compilation of important writings about Paganism from Classical times to the present, they have a couple excerpts about eco-feminism by relatively obscure writers, but none by one of the most influential Pagan writers of this age. I wonder why this is.
Small quibbles aside, I find Her Hidden Children to be a very valuable addition to my bookshelf. I may not remember all its detailed history a month from now, but I have high hopes that should anyone ask me a question about Wicca in the U.S. in the mid-20th century, at least now I’ll know where to look to find the answer.