Owen Davies is Professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire and author of books that specialize in subjects relating to witchcraft and the practice of magic, including “Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History”, “Witchcraft, Magic and Culture, 1736-1951”, and “Grimoires: A History of Magic Books”. His most recent work is part of Oxford University Press’ Very Short Introductions series, in which he tackles the subject of Paganism, both ancient and modern. I was lucky enough to conduct an interview with Davies about “Paganism: A Very Short Introduction,” in addition to asking some questions relating to his research into grimoires.
Oxford recently published “Paganism: A Very Short Introduction,” part of their growing “A Very Short Introduction” series. In it you summarize the current scholarly consensus on the subject, from pre-history to the Roman Empire, through the conversion of Europe, missionary interactions across the world with “pagans” in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, and finally to the contemporary Pagan revival. At just over 100 (small) pages, it’s an excellent starter on the subject. How did you come to be their “pagan” writer, and what was the process like for putting this together?
The idea for adding Paganism to the list of topics in the popular Very Short Introduction series came from the Oxford University Press team. Considering that the series already including books on most of the major religions, and covered ancient forms under Druids and Egyptian Myth, there was a real gap for a survey that covered the idea of Paganism from antiquity to the present. They probably approached Ronald Hutton to do it first! But came to me as someone with a broad-ranging expertise, and having recently covered the same period and similar territory for Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (2009). In terms of putting the book together it followed nicely on from researching Grimoires, and I was very keen to provide coverage on how and why, in the period of colonialism and Empire building, the label of ‘paganism’ was applied to the religions of peoples beyond Europe and the Middle East. I also wanted to draw upon all the latest archaeological research to revise older surveys of paganism in prehistoric and medieval Europe.
Things that struck me while reading “Paganism” was how long the process of converting Europe to Christianity took, how “unfinished” that process still is on a global scale, and how much continuity between our “pagan” past and our present there is. This is also touched on in your 2009 book “Grimoires,” where “pagan” books of magic had a profound effect on our world: From the rise of the printing press, to the formation of African diasporic and modern Pagan religions. Do we still, in our modern Western society, undervalue our pre-Christian roots?
This question raises a lot of very interesting issues about how we interpret the past, what versions of history or prehistory we choose to read, and how it is presented. It is certainly true that most people have only a hazy view of European pre-Christian religions and practices, and to be honest, when it comes to any period before the sixteenth century the evidence of popular religious notions and practices is decidedly sketchy and open to wide-ranging interpretation – which is what makes it such a contested but fascinating area of debate. At the same time, most people have only a vague understanding of the various manifestations of Christianity and their relationship to, and influence by, other contemporary religions during the early centuries of the Church.
There are still a lot of misconceptions about pre-Christian and indigenous religions. As you note, the achievements of pagan cultures had “a profound influence on the forging of modern society.” Yet many people, including some scholars, still parrot old stereotypes about what “paganism” is. Or if they do give credit, it seems rather backhanded, often repositioning great pagan philosophers and thinkers as proto-monotheists or even proto-atheists. Do you see this book as something of a corrective? Are you hopeful it will influence the larger narrative regarding the “p-word”?
Well, my job with the Very Short Introduction was primarily one of synthesis, and I make no claims to provide a profound new revision of the subject. I hope that it introduces some modern Pagans to issues and areas of debate, some uncomfortable, that they might not otherwise engage with regarding the meaning and use of paganism as a symbol. Likewise, I hope that it will provide those new to the topic with a clear and fair account of the relationship between and heritage of ancient and modern manifestations of Paganism in contemporary Europe and beyond. In short, that paganism is not just about pre-Christian religions – or even religion per se. It is, in part, an invention of negotiation between and subjugation of different cultures.
In “Paganism” and “Grimoires” you explore the fascination that some members of Germany’s Third Reich had with certain occult philosophies, but your books make the case that the Nazis actually worked diligently to suppress individual interest in magic, astrology, and the occult. Could you elaborate a bit on this point? Why did the Nazis see folk-magic and other belief systems as a threat to them?
There is a lot of misinformation about Nazism and occultism in its various forms. From the beginning, the Nazi regime was concerned by what it feared might be destabilising and non-conformist elements within German society. Freemasonry, religious sects, and, of course, any non-Nazi or non-Arian (as defined by the Nazis) political or social organisation were targeted. The various small groups of ritual magic practitioners that had formed and disbanded since the late nineteenth century came under this umbrella. Tied with this was a deep concern about the work of astrologers, whose predictions could undermine or challenge the propaganda machine. So it was primarily the middle-class world of occultism and esotericism that concerned the regime. Popular belief in magic was not much of a concern because it was in no way an organised threat to political control – the emphasis being on organised. Elements of folk magic were also interpreted as being survivals of an honourable Arian prehistoric past, rather than some foreign or corrupted intellectual thesis or religion. So while the astrologers and esotericists were rounded up, the cunning-folk carried on their business with apparently little interference.
I’d like to touch on the issue of pagan survivals a bit. In “Paganism” you run through the issue, noting the different figures who claimed to have found evidence of pre-Christian religion, often erroneously. That said, your work, and the work of scholars like Ronald Hutton have posited streams of transmission from our pagan past to modern times, like magical books. Could you explain, in your opinion, what elements modern Pagan religions can and do accurately claim as truly ancient?
Many elements of modern Paganism can lay claim to be truly ancient – as uncovered or interpreted by historians, archaeologists, folklorists and anthropologists. Such literary sources of actual and interpretive evidence were the inspiration for the creation of new religions in the modern era, just as the tenets and stories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were based on or influenced by pre-cursor texts and beliefs, or Rastafarianism was born from an amalgam of literary influences. While evidence for the unique oral transmission of pre-Christian knowledge down to the present, untouched by any literary linkage, is very difficult to prove, and often highly dubious or downright duplicitous, that is not to say that some knowledge of folk medicine and folk magic has not survived in this way. It certainly has in some parts of southern Europe, and some of these notions and rituals clearly have pre-Christian origins. But I have not seen any convincing evidence of the continuous oral transmission of pre-Christian worship surviving beyond the medieval period in Europe.
In “Grimoires” you posit a sort of “counter-Enlightenment” that ran alongside the 18th century Age of Enlightenment and spawned a modern Freemasonry movement steeped in ritual magic and alchemy. Would you say that a similar movement exists today? Is the “reenchantment” of the West, that some scholars write about, a new counter-Enlightenment? Are grimoires and ritual magic at odds with the values of the Enlightenment?
I often refer to the ‘so called’ Enlightenment, in that there was no intellectual big bang in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but more a continuous development of intellectual ideas about human existence and the natural world, albeit with obvious step changes. The Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution that is often portrayed as underpinning it, did not lead to a great conversion to atheism. Neither did it lead to a mass rejection of the place of magic in the world. The notion of the disenchantment of the world, which Weber identified in relation to Protestantism, could also be pushed back to the intellectual world of medieval science, where the likes of Roger Bacon were trying to disenchant magic by teasing apart the ‘natural’ from the ‘demonic’. There have been continual phases of reenchantment in intellectual thought since the seventeenth century, whether in the guise of mesmerism, odic force and spiritualism, or modern forms of ritual magic. Science itself can also be enchanted- after all it is often expressed in terms of an awe-struck BELIEF in its future potential to answer all the questions of existence, material and metaphysical.
Could you briefly touch on the role of grimoiries, and the people who used them, during the Early Modern witch hunts? It seems that grimoire collectors and users mostly escaped these persecutions, barring a few exceptions. Was there some sort of distinction made that saved them from the scrutiny of witch-hunters?
No real distinction was made; it just proves that it is impossible to truly suppress illicit writings. The Italian Inquisition tried and failed in its own back yard, and other Inquisitions were no more successful. The French authorities utterly failed to control the rise of popular (and demonic) grimoires in eighteenth-century France. The desire for literary magical knowledge was too great, even in societies where the majority of people were illiterate. The media is full of talk about the revolutionary power of web-based social networks to communicate illicitly in dictatorships today, but manuscript and print has proven equally effective over the centuries in subverting and undermining authority.
In your closing in “Paganism” you stress the relevance paganism, both ancient and modern, still has. That it “continues to excite.” Where do you see the modern Pagan movement, and the broader conceptions of what “paganism” is, going in the near future?
Absolutely no idea! The various modern Paganisms, and branches of magical practice, that have developed over the last century or so, were inspired by the creativity of a few people that went on to inspire a whole lot more. Will these established forms continue and expand? Or will new expressions of paganism come to the fore? Nationalist forms of Paganism will wane perhaps but not go away. I do see the grave environmental issues facing the planet being an increasingly important source of Pagan inspiration, and perhaps the well-spring of new developments in terms of what it means to be a Pagan in a global context.
Finally, now that “Paganism” is out, what’s next for you?
Following on from Paganism: A Very Short Introduction, I have written Magic: A Very Short Introduction, which is, in some respects, a companion publication. It will be out early next year, and looks at how different religions, cultures and scholarly disciplines have theorised about magic, and also how magic has and is practised. Again, I have tried to broaden out the discussion, with considerable attention to magic in Islam for example. So much to cover in so little space! I am also just finishing a major book on witchcraft in America from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, which will also be published by Oxford University Press.