Guest Post: Preserving Our History

[Michael Lloyd is an engineer and writer. He is a co-founder and former co-facilitator (2002-2011) of the Between the Worlds Men’s Gathering, an annual spiritual retreat for men who love men. Michael has written for Circle magazine, Outlook magazine, and The Witches Voice, and was the author of Chapter 2 - “The History of Oils” - of Lady Rhea’s Enchanted Formulary (Citadel, 2007). His first book, Bull of Heaven: The Mythic Life of Eddie Buczynski and the Rise of the New York Pagan, will be published later this year. He was interviewed on the subject of gay Paganism by Margot Adler for her latest revision of Drawing Down the Moon (Penguin Books, 2007). A long-time resident of Columbus, Ohio, Michael was named in the 2011 Who’s Who of GLBT Columbus. He has an author page on Facebook, and can be reached at Buczynski.project@gmail.com.]

“The loss of history is always of particular concern in minority subcultures, where change is often rapid and the accurate preservation of historical details is of secondary interest to merely living life and getting by.” - Michael Lloyd, Bull of Heaven, from the Proemium

Many thanks to Jason for his great work here at Wild Hunt and for allowing me the opportunity to address his readership during his absence. As mentioned above, I have completed and am readying for publication the biography of Eddie Buczynski, a Craft elder from New York City who passed away in 1989 from complications associated with AIDS. Buczynski was the founder of three different living Witchcraft traditions in the U.S., including one that is near and dear to my own heart – the Minoan Tradition. Working on the life story of a Craft elder, and reconstructing the history of that portion of the Neo-Pagan movement pertaining to him, has been a personally satisfying experience. It has enabled me to meet fascinating people from all over the world and from many varied backgrounds – artists, playwrights, archaeologists, actors, writers, musicians – in addition to many elders in the Neo-Pagan community. I’ve made some great friends over the nine years that I have worked on this project. However, I am sobered by the realization that, during this process, I have also watched as eight of the more than seventy people I interviewed have passed over to the Summerlands. Several others who survived their battles continue to have serious health issues, many associated with the mundane ravages of time. It is a grim thought that, had I waited even a few short years to begin this project, the effort might have been gutted at the outset.

This brings me to the point of this blog post – we are simply not doing enough to preserve our history. We are steadily losing the elders of the past generation of Witches, Pagans, Ceremonial Magickians, Shamans and the like. Those who were adults in the 1960s and 1970s when they founded traditions, fought for equality, or wrote the texts that shaped and influenced our various spiritual paths are now fast approaching (or have reached) their golden years. That, in itself, is not a cause for alarm for, as we all know, the cycle of life and death is both natural and inexorable. What is alarming, however, is the utter hash we have been making of documenting the history of specific traditions and their founders/leaders. We can thank several dedicated writers and historians for doing a decent job of capturing the general history of the movement, through the auspices of people both within the community (e.g., Margot Adler, Chas Clifton) and outside of it (e.g., Ronald Hutton). But when it comes to preserving the memories or the papers of important historical figures within the Neo-Pagan movement, we are failing, and failing miserably. And future generations will look unkindly upon us for this.

Eddie Buczynski has only been gone for 23 years, so many of his friends and family members are, fortunately, still with us. And while many of the papers which were in his possession when he passed were scrapped long ago, I did manage to locate a surprising amount of material squirreled away in various places throughout the country. What this really means is that I got lucky. But not everyone who ventures down this path with other deceased elders can count on this good fortune, which leads me to address you elders who may be reading this. I appeal to your sense of community and sense of history. If you wish to have some assurance that your legacy will be preserved after you are gone, do a favor for yourself and for those around you – indeed, do us all a favor – and formulate a transition plan that makes arrangements to handle your papers, photos, and other community-related ephemera. And why wait until your will is probated? Consider approaching an archive or university library that might be willing to catalogue and preserve your collection of papers and other materials while you are still alive and before poor health or death makes such arrangements difficult or impossible to carry out.

Even if you do not want to allow others to go through your papers before you pass, do so yourself. I have gone through some absolutely atrocious collections over the years, with papers, photos and books jumbled, folded, thrown into boxes, or exposed to sunlight, vermin and the elements, destroyed by mildew, stained with cigarette smoke, and damaged by spills or floods. If you do not have the money to preserve your papers to archival standards (e.g., acid free boxes and envelopes, mylar sleeves), you can at least organize them neatly in folders and boxes and store them in a manner that keeps them from harm. Do not underestimate the value of your papers to a future historian or writer! Cards, letters, fliers, press releases, interviews, articles, notes, handouts, diaries, datebooks, rough drafts of manuscripts, vouches and other organizational records – and now emails – are all extremely valuable sources of information. Photos are a particular concern, for their lack of preservation is a problem that I have encountered many times over the years. It’s preferable to keep photos in their original paper envelope than it is to place them in a photo album. With the latter, the chemicals in the plastic backing and sleeve eventually react with the photos and glue them into place both front and back. If you can do so, consider digitizing your photographs using a high-density scanner, and then burning them to disc or backing them up in a couple of different places so that they are preserved for posterity. Email is also a preservation priority, with so many people relying on it these days over postal letters. Routinely placing electronic records into pdf format and archiving them someplace safe is probably the best way to ensure that future generations will be able to access them.

In conjunction with Eddie Buczynski’s biography, several years ago I interviewed Harold Moss, co-founder of the Church of the Eternal Source. At some point during our correspondence, Harold lamented that no one would probably bother to write his biography (Moss passed away in 2010). If any other elders out there have a similar concern, then I would like to tell you what I told Harold at the time – consider writing your autobiography, or at least setting down your memoirs on paper. They don’t have to be published, but it is vitally important that your oral history be recorded in some manner, even if in audio/video recordings or a simple draft manuscript. Oral histories (lore) are fine for the campfire, but they are generally unreliable sources of history, as anyone who has played the game of telephone can understand. If your words are recorded, then at least they will be preserved when you are no longer able, or present, to answer questions.

And here is where I make my second plea of this article. If you do go to the trouble of recording your story, please be honest in its telling. Shading the truth (or manufacturing it out of whole cloth) may preserve your dignity and the party line while you are alive, but in the long run you’re only fooling yourself. It’s a safe bet that some future historian, researcher, or writer will eventually come along, dig out the facts, and point out the glaring inconsistencies (or worse, misrepresentations) in your story. So it’s best just to be honest. One should also try to be as accurate as possible. Memories fail us; it’s a fact of life. And we are notoriously bad at recalling dates. But details and dates matter in history and what is a biography/autobiography, if not the history of a person? If you can’t remember or reconstruct a believable timeline for your story, then your efforts will be of limited interest or use (or veracity) to others. So do the best that you can on this score.

I understand that writing one’s life story can be a daunting task. And not everyone is up to it. That is where an independent biographer may come into the picture. Speaking from personal experience, writing the biography of another person is a long, tedious and financially unrewarding process. But from the community’s viewpoint it is a necessary one, and on a personal level it can be highly satisfying intellectually. If you are an aspiring writer who is thinking of tackling the biography of a Neo-Pagan leader, I urge you to think carefully about the task that lay ahead of you. Do it only because a particular story calls to you, not because you hope to become famous or rich at the end of the process – the reality is that neither is likely to happen. It is that passion that will sustain you when nothing else does, believe me.

Approach your subject and the task at hand with humility, patience, perseverance, and gratitude. Unless you’ve been hired to write the book, you must be prepared to pay your own way, whether it’s copying and postage fees, travel expenses, long-distance phone calls, the purchase of reference materials, or any of the multitudes of miscellaneous expenses that may appear along the way. Remember that no one owes you anything, and that you will oft-times be relying on the kindness of strangers. Be respectful and fair to all, but mindful that you are beholden to history, as well as to the future generations who will be relying upon you for the truth (or as close as you can get to it). A story that unquestioningly and unrealistically praises its subject is called a hagiography, not a biography. It is the mirror image of a smear and, in my personal opinion, both are the product of hacks. Be better than that. As one of my interviewees demanded of me early in my own project – “Do a good job!”

About Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • Ian Corrigan

    Excellent article! Welsh Traditional Craft is an interesting byway in our history, and EB’s work deserves to be remembered. Agree entirely on all points re preservation and chronicles, and especially on factuality. When can we pre-order?

  • Lsodders2003

    very well said one of the main reasons i do podcasting is to record the words and thoughts of Pagans so that future generations will not only read of these folks but hear their words and thoughts behind the books and music

  • http://quakerpagan.org/ Cat C-B

    One thing I find sad is that few Pagan publishers are interested in memoir. Not only is that a loss in terms of autobiographical information, but I think it cheats us of a lot of wisdom, too. I know that Quakers have long relied on journals and spiritual journey stories to convey important truths to one another, and I can’t think of anything I’ve learned as much from as people’s own stories.

    I hope the current taste for Pagan history expands to embrace Pagan biographies and autobiographies, too. There’s a lot to be learned, in reading a life.

    • http://sarenth.wordpress.com/ Sarenth

      From your lips/fingers to the Gods’ ears/eyes!

  • http://ianphanes.livejournal.com/ Ian Phanes

    “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” As someone whose lineage descends from Eddie, I am very excited about Bull of Heaven. I hope Jason will announce it here when it is released.

  • Zan Fraser

    Hey Michael, co-founder of BTW, or as I call it, the Secret Underground Pagan Gay Guy Network (dang, I guess it’s not so secret now): great, great article, and I can’t wait to write about Bull of Heaven on the Juggler (PNC-affiliate)-

  • Gary Suto

    Well written and I hope it inspires others to write about our elders or to write about themselves. The Gods may preserve the craft but it’s people like you that make sure of it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=685041384 Fanny Fae

    As someone who has had to sort through the estate of another and discern what was important and what was not – and then quite regrettably having let go of something that should not have been, I appreciate this article very much. Thank you for posting it.

  • Obsidia

    As someone who has pledged this coming year to “going through my papers, books, and other media”…..I would love to know of places to donate old copies of Pagan magazines. And we need more Pagan libraries for sure!

  • William Seligman

    I am working on a biography of Isaac Bonewits. The need for such a biography is clear; when I say what I’m doing to folks at pagan festivals, the most common reaction is “Isaac who?”

    I’ve had many of the same experiences as Michael. I agree with him: preserving neopagan history is becoming ever more important. I’ll be giving a presentation on this topic at this year’s Free Spirit Gathering.

    To the question of preserving our history, I think Isaac himself would have answered with a question of his own: “How do the professional historians do it?” I pursued this by speaking with the the heads Digital Humanities and Oral Histories departments at Columbia University.

    For paper documents, one can use high-resolution scans. This has become critically important in classics research, since in some cases different fragments of a document may be in possession of different libraries. With digital scanning and manipulation, these can be assembled while keeping the originals secure. So university archives are already facing and solving the problems of how to best perform scans, how to preserve them in formats that withstand the test of time, etc.

    For oral histories, there are already established protocols for conducting, transcribing, and editing recordings.

    When I contacted Columbia University to ask about this project, not only did I find them supportive and responsive, they asked if they could become custodians of my digital scans and oral histories once I finished with my project. It’s not only important to make records, but to keep them someplace where future historians will find access to them. On your hard drive, or in the “cloud”, is not sufficient for a professional historian!

    Bottom line: Part of the process of preserving our history is to talk with the librarians at your nearest college or university. They have the tools, experience, and academic connections we need. We don’t have to re-invent the wheel!

    • Jack Heron

      To add something to that – if you’re finding people uninterested in preserving stuff, academic librarians are precisely the right people to talk to. They understand the importance of preservation far better than anyone else.

  • Wendy Griffin

    Cherry Hill Seminary will be developing a repository to go in our online library. Please consider us when doing this planning.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Murtagh-AnDoile/1570781319 Murtagh AnDoile

    Very good article, especially on Eddie and the Welsh Trad.

    We are currently in the beginning stages of creating a Pagan History Project. I presented the proposal/outline for the project at the Conference on Current Pagan studies at the beginning of the month. I believe Jason has a link to the Conference somewhere on this site. This came about , as Michael, stated because of the high death rate of Tradition Elders, and movers and shakers in Pagan Movement. The necessity of recording our history has become very important.
    We are in the process of getting grant money, and are assembling a team of independent scholars, historians and anthropologists.
    I am on my way to PantheaCon, ( thus the rushed response) to speak with several other members of the committee. We should be coming out with a formal announcement shortly.

  • Guest

    A “hagiography” is a life of a saint (can be said satirically).
    Part of the reason it may be difficult to self-bio, etc. is that people’s lives are social, and they don’t want to “out” anyone. As for their books, that may be either part of a tradition’s secret stuff or personal work that is just that – personal, and not nor necessarily ever meant to be public consumption. A lot of groups ask people to tell their heirs that in the case of premature departure, to destroy or return their materials, to keep them out of the hands of voyeurs and folks on ebay.
    Frustrating I’m sure on those who want to document particular people

  • Anonymous

    This is a great article. I faced many of these issues when I knew my husband Isaac Bonewits would be passing from this world. Although emotionally I wanted to hold on to all his papers, I was terrified that they would merely follow me around from storage locker to storage locker, finally to get lost at the time of my own passing.

    What I did was to ask various Pagan scholars for leads as to who might be interested in his archives. I rather quickly was connected with David C. Gartrell,
    University Archivist and Manuscripts Curator at Davidson Library, University of California at Santa Barbara. The library is home to American Religions Special Collection. The core of this collection was formed some years ago when new religions scholar and founder of the Institute for Study of American Religion at UCSB, J. Gordon Melton, donated his papers to UCSB. (Dr. Melton used to live in Chicago and was friends with my first magical teacher–Pagans do it in small circles, as Isaac used to say. But I digress…) Now there is a section of the collection called, appropriately enough, the Isaac Bonewits Papers.

    Mr. Gartrell has be terribly helpful. The library will take Pagan publications, too, for the collection. You can contact him for further information at gartrell “at” library.ucsb.edu.

    Isaac and also have been fortunate to have William Seligman as a friend, who has commented elsewhere on this post. He is working on a bio of Isaac. What we’ve done is, before I send things to UCSB, Bill gets to take a look at them and scans whatever he thinks might be useful. The nice thing is, if he guessed wrong, the stuff is still accessible at UCSB — a win-win.

    For years, people have asked me to write my own memoir. My standard response has been that not enough people are dead yet. It’s not such a funny line anymore.

  • Morpheus1

    Says the man who managed to get himself BANISHED from the Minoan Brotherhood TWICE for, among over things, revealing oathe-bound material and the legal names of his Brothers without their content, and who uses his Initiation and degree (misuses, actually) in order to make himself to learned and important in the Gay Pagan community at large. Ultimately, however, he is incredibly pompous, deeply uncouth, and he severely looks down on anyone from a non-vouched-for “Tradition”!

    Though, speaking of Eddie, I have it on good authority that when Eddie stepped aside he left his Coven (the original MB) with another and when changes were made to it, Eddie was no longer considered a member of the Trad. because certain ritual changes were made.

    • Jack

      Wow. I guess when you do nothing for the larger gay pagan community you have to tear down others. Your comments reflect that if I were to meet you, you yourself would probably be incredibly pompous, deeply uncouth and looking down on non-vouched for tradtions.
      It’s called a mirror and you need some windex.

    • Aurifex

      Twice? Did you not get it right the first time?

    • A.C. Fisher Aldag

      All the more reason all of that “secret squirrel” fraternity initiation stuff is not only unnecessary, but silly.

      • Guest

        In comparison to open circles and study groups? Or experimental “open source” and “cyberlodges” (fraught with the same kind of infighting)? Is it silly to pass on the tradition rather than scrap it away?
        I’m not sure what the best alternative happens to be out there. Nearly every study group I’ve been in became partly oathbound, partly because the teacher didn’t want someone else taking what they taught and marketing it themselves, or they just simply didn’t want to be plagiarized or fuel competition. Who knows.
        Just saying sometimes that squirrel’s pretty cute.

  • A.C. Fisher Aldag

    What a wonderful article! Thank you. We’re losing our elders, our pioneers of the Wiccan and various neo-Pagan movements at an alarming rate. How great that someone is chronicling them.

    Also appreciated is the advice on getting your personal papers in order. Not only biographic material but mundane stuff for your heirs, such as insurance policies, last wishes, bills, and so forth. I wonder if this will change, now that many people keep their memoirs, correspondences, and photos mostly online?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Seshat-Anqet-Het-Her/100003473686448 Seshat Anqet Het Her

    This article was well-timed and sorely needed. The Elders are going and it is unfortunate that the vast majority of Pagans that look up to them don’t seem to appreciate the gravity of the situation. It is not long ago that we began rebuilding our traditions out of the ashes of antiquity. I would say that Pagans are not immune to our modern culture’s short-term attention span. The idea of legacy is not part of the modern lexicon and we often make the mistake that legacies are only for the infamous, the rich and the powerful.

    We all have something to be remembered for and should start thinking about what that thing is. Another thing that I would like to highlight is that it seems customary in some witch circles to burn journals after a fellow witch passes. I know people who have asked their friends to do this upon their death. While they have the right to request this, this also means that these people need to be proactive in keeping a separate set of books, so to speak. Keep the revelations, the tips, the interesting conversations with Deity that would help others feel less alone in their path. So much of what we know about the past is because people wrote letters and kept them. With e-mail correspondence and Facebook, how much of what we say will be lost with a flip of the switch? Please be mindful and tell everyone you meet to be mindful as well. Tell your story.

    Em Khut en Mer (In Love and Light),
    Seshat
    http://www.otmc-usa.org/wordpress

  • Guest

    There’s a risk some of this would have too much being about more publicity-seeking BNPs retaining fame and image and reading dropped names and discussion about each other rather than preserving their wisdom

  • Julian Hill

    Great article and some wonderful points for so many of us to consider. History is often distorted because in the absence of good records, the dominant groups rewrite it to suit their own petty personal agendas. Looking forward to reading the book