Friday, January 05, 2018

AAR 2017 Annual Meeting - I

Once again, with help from the Covenant of the Goddess, I attended the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, this year in Boston.

As in most years, some Pagans planned a field trip to a local site or sites of interest to Pagans.  This year the place was obvious:  Salem, Massachusetts.  Under the guidance of Gwendolyn Reece, three of us (Gwendolyn, Jeffrey Albaugh, and me) lunched at the Tavern on the Green in the historic Hawthorne Hotel in Salem to plan our day.  I’d dined there before so I knew we’d like it.  The rest of our party (Caroline Tully, Chas Clifton, Sabina Magliocco, Kim Kirner) who had missed the train we took rendezvoused with us and we proceeded from there.

Our first stop after lunch was Nu Aeon, a store owned by a local companion, Gypsy Ravish.  She invited us into the Temple of Stars, a beautiful private sanctuary, where we immersed ourselves in the ambiance and viewed a video.  Unfortunately, the time taken in doing these things curtailed most of our touring.

Salem has a plethora of tourist attractions from which to choose, as you might imagine.  However, we were short on time.  We missed seeing the House of the Seven Gables, although we did visit some local witchy stores and we ducked into the Salem Witchcraft Museum near closing time, where we only browsed the gift shop.  I wasn’t too concerned because back in 1999, before the new displays (dioramas) were made public, Jerrie Hildebrand (who lives in a darling little house repurposed from a seaport warehouse right near the docks) arranged with the then-director for a private, pre-opening tour for Jerrie, Orion Foxwood, and myself.

Salem Graveyard in Autumn

Salem Graveyard

The heart of our visit was the graveyard wherein are buried the twenty condemned to death for practicing “witchcraft” in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93.  The cemetery has been made into a memorial garden for those victims of the hysteria, with a plaques/bench for each victim that visitors can sit upon or make a rubbing of the inscription.  There we spent the quiet twilight time.

* * * * *

Contemporary Pagan Studies and Western Esotericism Units.

The Pagan-Esoteric Complex: Mapping Intersecting Milieus: Contemporary paganism and esotericism share a common genealogy in 19th and early-20th century occultism.  While ‘pagans’ and ‘occultists’ have undergone some degree of differentiation since the mid-20th century, there is still a considerable overlap between milieus.  Despite these well-known facts, scholarship on esotericism and paganism has tended to reproduce the diverging identity discourses that have been created over the past century.  This panel will explore historical and contemporary cases that highlight the intersection of paganism and esotericism, from the fusion of Egyptomania and Celticism in the tradition springing from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, to the role of contemporary occultural festivals as a meeting place of pagans, magicians, and occultists.

«    Vivianne Crowley -- Ancient Egypt in an Irish Castle: How an Irish Goddess Spirituality Movement Bridges the Esoteric and Exoteric, Pagan, and Christian Worlds.  The Fellowship of Isis is one of the largest Goddess-worshipping organizations to emerge in the 1970s.  Founded by the Anglo-Irish Durdin-Robertson family, it claims tens of thousands of members and has multicultural appeal, particularly in the United States, where African American interest in Ancient Egypt is high.  The fellowship is based on esoteric interpretations of the Egyptian goddess Isis, but positions itself as a universal multifaith movement that honors the Divine feminine in all her forms.  Unlike many of the new religious movements born in the 1970s, it cannot be defined as a cult in the usual sense.  The movement has no membership fees, free resources, and great latitude in spiritual practice.  This paper examines the evolution of this contemporary Goddess movement and how it has sought to bridge the esoteric, exoteric, and Pagan and Christian worlds.

Lady Olivia in her late years
As of 2012, the worldwide membership of FOI had increased to 21 thousand from five thousand in 1985.  Its teaching material, rituals, and liturgy can be downloaded free from the main FOI site.  FOI is ahistorical and universal and requires no vows of secrecy.  Membership is open to all religions races, traditions, and children.  FOI Iseums (temples) and Lyceums (learning centers) have been established throughout the world.  FOI subscribes to Hermetic maxim “As above, so below,” from The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus

In addition, in 1993 FOI sent a colorful delegation led by founder Olivia Durdin-Robinson to the centennial Parliament of World Religions in Chicago.
Lady Olivia at Parliament of World Religions
I am familiar with two FOI groups here in California.  One is the Fellowship of Isis, Los Angeles, founded primarily by the late Laura Janesdaughter.  The other FOI group with which I am most familiar and is nearest to me, is Isis Oasis.[1]

Established by the late Lady Loreon Vigné in 1978, only two years after the founding of the mother fellowship at Clonegal Castle in Ireland, Isis Oasis is a beautiful
Egyptian-themed retreat and animal sanctuary in Geyserville, California.  Each guest room in the lodge is dedicated to a different Egyptian goddess, and Loreon’s stained glass art appears in all the structures.  Isis Oasis is also an animal sanctuary begun by Loreon because she is one of very few who successfully breeds the threatened ocelot in captivity.  It now shelters peacocks, swans, and other exotic birds, alpacas, iguanas and other lizards, and several species of wildcats.

«    Caroline TullyIsis of the North: The Celtic Priests of the Lineage of Scota.  Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, the primary creative genius behind the famous British occult group, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and his wife Moina Mathers established a mystery religion of Isis in fin de siècle Paris.  Lawrence Durdin-Robinson, his wife Pamela, and his sister Olivia created the Fellowship of Isis in Ireland in the mid-1970s.  Although separated by over half a century and not directly associated with each other, both groups have several characteristics in common.  Each combined their worship of an ancient Egyptian goddess with an interest in the Celtic Revival; both claimed that their priestly lineages derived directly from the Egyptian princess Scota, foundress of Ireland and Scotland according to Irish and Scottish mythology and pseudohistory; and both groups used dramatic ritual and theatrical events as avenues for the promulgation of their Isis religions.

Egyptian culture and religion have long fascinated people of many societies.  Kemeticism, a term for contemporary revivals of Ancient Egyptian religion, as currently practiced, ranges from strict reconstructionism to creative contemporary adaptations, as well as being a source for African pride and identity.   
Isis/Scota sailing from Egypt to Ireland
The same is true of what are generally considered to be “Celtic” (from Latin Celtae, “a name for the Gauls, the ancient Celtic tribes of France” and beyond) religions.  MacGregor is among those who consider the Celtic Scota to be a more northerly manifestation of Egyptian Isis.  They trace their lineage from 4th Dynasty pharaonic Egypt of two thousand years BCE to Roman mysteries circa 90 BCE.   

«    Diana Brown“Eastern Methods and Western Bodies”: Dion Fortune’s Assessment of Yoga for a Western Audience.  Occultists of the 19th and early 20th centuries both contributed to the popularization of thought and practices identified as yoga in British and American contexts and attempted to situate their own practices in relation to yoga.  In her writings of the 1920s and ‘30s, the British occultist Dion Fortune, who famously called ‘Qabalah’ the ‘Yoga of the West,’ reveals her changing assessment of the nature of yoga, its relationship to “Western” magical practices, and its appropriateness for Western practitioners.  A member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and founder of her own magical order, the Fraternity of the Inner Light, Fortune is a significant and understudied figure in the landscape of 20th century “Western Esotericism,” whose novels and nonfiction works such as The Sea Priestess and The Mystical Qabalah remain important for practitioners of ritual magic and Paganism, both of whom at times have self-consciously thought of themselves as alternately “Western” or European indigenous traditions.

Young Dion Fortune
I suspect most American (and other) Pagans are familiar with Dion Fortune (Violet Firth) and her writings.  Her ability to deftly synthesize ideas “derives largely from her ability to bring difficult esoteric concepts into a lucid and readily accessible prose."[2]  That legacy echoes throughout much, if not most, on contemporary Paganism.  This is especially the case today because we have so much more exposure to each other’s cultures than ever before.

«    Jason WinsladeFaeries, Bards, and Magicians: Fantasy Worlds of the Pagan Music Festival.  At contemporary Pagan festivals, solo musicians and musical groups that cultivate a Pagan or occult persona are able to fully embody that aspect for audiences already living in those alternative realities within the festival scene.  The narratives, performances and live experiences offered by these artists not only are a part of the fantasy landscape of the Pagan festival, they are often the primary methods, other than the public rituals, these festivals use to frame the event’s meaning, tone and atmosphere for its participants.  This paper examines the interaction between these artists and their audiences at several current festivals in the Midwest and eastern U.S., focusing on the methods of mythmaking, storytelling and sense experience provided by live performance.  As well as the artists’ creation of magical personae.  The paper will further contextualize these experiences within an occultural history of live musical performance and performative Pagan identity formation.

I agree with Jason’s assertion that music and its performance “are often the primary methods, other than the public rituals, these festivals use to frame the event’s meaning, tone and atmosphere for its participants.”  To quote poet and scholar Steven Posch,  “The old ways weren't just handed down informally by granny at the kitchen table. The prime mode of lore transmission in oral cultures has always been through the passing down of songs and poetry.”  How fortunate we are to have the venue of festivals where this happens.  I appreciate this study of our movement, how it has arisen, how it has been nourished, how it has evolved, all shaped in large part by the sounds of its music.  However, the study’s reliance on midwestern and eastern U.S. festivals, while limited due to geography, seems to me to ignore or overlook lots of other fine Pagan musicians with whom I’m familiar who evidently don’t necessarily make it to the more easterly festivals.

My next post will report on the Native Traditions in the Americas and North American Religions Units about Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline Protest.

[1]             When the AAR Annual Meeting was last held in San Francisco, in 2011, our pre-conference Pagan field trip included Isis Oasis.
[2]             Historian Claire Fanger