Neopaganism, Feminism, Nationalism – an Interview with Kathryn Rountree

Kathryn Rountree Kathryn Rountree is one of the world’s renowned academic experts on Neopaganism, as well as the interface between contemporary spirituality and feminism. She studies the Goddess movement in various parts of the world, mostly in her native New Zealand and in Malta, and focuses now also on the burgeoning of modern Paganism(s) and Native Faith Movements in Europe.

Neopaganism is a branch of contemporary spirituality which focuses on attempts to reconstruct or revive the worship of the ancient gods and goddesses, the art of witchcraft and a supposed lost harmony between human beings, nature and the animal world. It centers on different ethnic traditions and varied pantheons of gods and goddesses (such as the Celtic, Greek or Canaanite pantheons). It is a relatively young phenomenon, stretching back to the mid Twentieth Century, but Neopagans aim at reviving far older traditions than Western monotheism itself, and some of them claim not to simply to reinvigorate ancient traditions, but link themselves in a direct continuum to ancient initiatory lines of priestesses and witches.

It is difficult to calculate exactly how many Neopagans are there presently in the West, as many of them chose not to identify as such in official state censuses (and many of the latter don’t check the issue of religion). However, my colleague Shai Feraro (Tel Aviv University) lets me know that recent estimates among academics state that the Pagan numbers in the United States alone are now approaching one million, and might even exceed it. In the United Kingdom, the 2011 census recorded almost 85,000 Pagans, making Paganism the 7th largest religion there.

Rountree’s research emphasizes the ways in which Neopaganism enriches the value system of contemporary Western individuals. Goddess worship, for example, can serve as a source for women empowerment, as well as a feminist stand against monotheism’s placement of the male as earthly representative of God the Father. A soon-to-be published anthology edited by Rountree will include essays on Neopaganism’s contribution to value structures such as patriotism, nationalism and anti-western sentiments (see the interview below).

Rountree will be in Israel in order to participate in the 6th Israeli Conference for the Study of Contemporary Religion and Spirituality, which will take place on Wednesday 23th April at Tel Aviv University. The conference’s Chairpersons include Prof. Ron Margolin and myself, and it will include more than 80 presentations by both senior and early career researchers from Israel and abroad. This link will take you to the English program of the conference. I asked Prof. Rountree to answer a few questions, and I thank very much her for her good will.

Goddess figurine, Malta

For over twenty years you’ve been researching the Goddess Movement in different parts of the world. Can you first give us a short overview of the movement? What are its characteristics, where is it most present, and is it in a state of growth or decline?

Indeed, it’s 25 years since I began researching Goddess spirituality in New Zealand for my PhD! The period of the 1990s was a lively time for the movement with groups springing up in many Western countries, inspired by the writing of leading feminists and scholars like Carol P. Christ, Mary Daly, Charlene Spretnak, Naomi Goldenburg, Zsuzsanna Budapest and, of course, Starhawk. Carol P. Christ’s famous paper ‘Why Women Need the Goddess’ (1978) captures the mood of that moment better than anything else I know: ‘The simplest and most basic meaning of the symbol of Goddess is the acknowledgment of the legitimacy of female power as a beneficient and independent power’.* Thousands of spiritually inclined feminists found the idea of deity being imaged as female inspiring, liberating and empowering.

I still meet regularly with the same group of women in New Zealand with whom I conducted that PhD research a quarter of a century ago, but my research focus has broadened to include the diverse forms contemporary Paganism. I’m especially interested in how local cultural, religious, political and historical contexts impact on the unique expressions of Paganism in a particular country. In 2005 I began an ethnographic study of Wiccans and Pagans in Malta (published as Crafting Contemporary Pagan Identities in a Catholic Society, Ashgate, 2010) and it has been fascinating to see the growth and permutations of the Pagan community in a country where 98% of the population is Catholic. I felt it was possible to identify a transposable cultural logic between Catholicism and Paganism – a different view of Paganism from the one we see in more secular or Protestant countries. While Maltese Pagans choose Paganism as their spiritual path, almost all have been enculturated into Catholicism to some degree and Catholicism is therefore inseparable from their cultural identity. I’d be very interested to know whether something similar happens with Israeli Pagans and Judaism.

As for the Goddess movement, I’m not really in a position to say whether it is growing or declining. Certainly in New Zealand it has not grown and has probably declined – as has fervor for feminism. However I keep hearing about Goddess groups emerging in other countries such as Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Germany, Italy and Israel, so the movement does appear to be growing in some parts of the world. Although the Goddess movement seems to have waned in New Zealand, the ideas it promotes are now more widely known and acceptable to more people: the idea of women’s power and independence that Carol Christ spoke about is more normal. The idea of deity as female or beyond gender and the notion of a sacred connection between humans and a sacred, animate world seem to have gained more traction.

Pagan altar, Malta

Neo-Paganism is sort of a black sheep among the New-Age milieu, as it does not look ahead to a grand and golden new age, but tries to reconstruct forgotten or subjugated religions of old. What do you think lies at the bottom of this passion for the past and the ancient? Could it be a critique against the humanist or modern project, or perhaps an attempt to find resources that would in fact save it?

It’s interesting that you say neo-Paganism is a ‘black sheep’ among the New Age milieu, because many neo-Pagans tend to have a negative view of the New Age, seeing it as solipsistic, pre-occupied with self-improvement, resembling mainstream religions in emphasizing ‘the light’ and the future instead of embracing life-as-it-is and the whole spectrum of experience – dark as well as light. It is true that neo-Pagans valorize ancient religions to varying degrees, but many are also cheerfully and consciously eclectic and inventive, drawing on a huge range of sources: ancient and living religious traditions, folklore, environmentalism, feminism, historical re-enactment groups, popular culture, and so on.

There is a widespread conviction that patriarchal monotheism is a poor fit in the contemporary world. All neo-Pagans, irrespective of how committed they are to reconstructing old religions, seek a more intimate and respectful relationship with nature, and presumably this connects with their ‘passion for the past and the ancient’. A strong current of environmentalism runs through all of them. The groups which aim to reconstruct the ancient religions of their ancestors have been seen by scholars as responses to concerns about foreign colonizing ideologies, cultural erosion, globalization, cosmopolitanism and crises in ethnic identity. In the context of such tensions, the resources of one’s cultural heritage may be used to help furnish the symbolic capital for a contemporary socio-political project. Particularly, but not only, in post-Soviet Europe, reconstructing an ancient religion is connected with asserting an authentic indigenous identity.

An anthology you are editing, soon to be published, focuses on the bourgeoning of Pagan Reconstructionism in center and east European countries. Studies on this subject have shown that this phenomenon carries with it the potential for intense nationalism, in which Christianity is taken as a foreign, “Western” element, or at other times a Middle-Eastern and Jewish element, that must be rejected in the process of constructing a “pure” and “true” nation-state. Could you say a few words about this phenomenon, and about how Neo-Paganism in Eastern Europe has developed differently than in Western Europe, North America, Australia and New-Zealand?

The anthology actually includes neo-Pagan and Native Faith movements of many stripes in all quarters of Europe, from Ireland to northeastern Siberia and from Scandinavia to Spain and Portugal. It does not only deal with reconstructionist movements. Although reconstructionist movements in which ethnonationalism is important have been associated with central and eastern European countries, and western Paganisms have been characterized by eclecticism, universalism and a lack of concern for ethnicity, the book shows that the pattern is messier than that. Often existing side by side, there are reconstructionist groups with intensely local concerns and informed by nationalistic impulses – in post-Soviet Europe, but elsewhere too – and numerous other groups which take their cue from British or American-originated traditions such as Wicca, Druidry, Goddess spirituality or Michael Harner’s Core Shamanism, albeit with local inflections. The book explores what might be identified as two broad impulses under the neo-Pagan and Native Faith umbrella, one colonialist (in terms of the Anglo-American derived universalist traditions) and one nationalistic. They show how these two impulses – by no means mutually exclusive – intersect, collide and transform.

For the kinds of Pagan movements your question refers to, religious authenticity for a modern movement derives from a perceived connection with the ancient cultural or ethnic roots of the faith, whereby, as Adrian Ivakhiv has explained in the light of his work in Ukraine, ‘blood’ and ‘tradition’ – and ultimately nationality and nation-state – are rooted in a specific territory, an idea with precursors in European and Soviet thought. Here the nature-society relation is structured differently from the way it is by most Anglo-Americans, Ivakhiv says; humans are not seen as separate from nature, but as culturally or ethnically ‘rooted’ in the natural world.** Because of this, religion and ethnic politics are necessarily entwined. Since the end of the 1980s, says Victor Shnirelman in a review of these movements, neo-Pagans in post-Soviet lands have been ‘searching for both a primordial past and a pure ethnic culture, which they view as invaluable resources to overcome the hardship and ideological vacuum of the transitional period’.*** Ethnic nationalists in these societies have advocated a return to the authentic spirituality of the pre-Christian era to help the re-building of nation states, presenting an anti-colonial and anti-West message. But as I have said, in some countries there are devoted reconstructionists and people following Western-derived Pagan traditions side by side.

Members of Nova Roma conduct a Roman sacrifice to the goddess Concordia between the ruins of Aquincum, the modern city of Budapest, Hungary, during the Roman festival of Floralia, organized by the Aquincumi Múzeum - Picture from Wikipedia

Your presentation at the 6th Israeli Conference for the Study of Contemporary Religion and Spirituality is titled Querying ‘East’ and ‘West’ in Contemporary Pagan and Native Faith Groups: Reconstructionism and Eclecticism Revisited. Can you tell us what you will be talking about?

I will question the extent to which a model which juxtaposes East and West, or Reconstructionism and Eclecticism, is meaningful in the contemporary globalized, internet-saturated world where Pagans and Native Faith followers participate in global communities, bypassing cultural and geographical boundaries, even while some assert their importance. I will give examples of neo-Pagan groups in Europe which disrupt the ‘East’ and ‘West’ stereotypes. As Paganism spreads and morphs in a world where identities and affinities are configured and reconfigured in numerous ways – and where cultural, ethnic and religious pluralism become ever more pervasive – I think it is timely to reconsider how important the categories of Reconstructionism and Eclecticism, or East and West, are for Pagan and Native Faith groups today.

Thank you very much.

:

* ‘Why Women Need the Goddess’ was presented as the keynote address to an audience of over 500 at the "Great Goddess Re-emerging" conference at the University of Santa Cruz in the spring of 1978. It was first published in Heresies: The Great Goddess Issue (1978), 8-13, and has been reprinted numerous times. http://www.goddessariadne.org/#!why-women-need-the-goddess-part-1/cufo

** Ivakhiv, A. 2009. ‘Nature and Ethnicity in East European Paganism: An Environmental Ethic of the Religious Right?’ in B. Davy (ed.) Paganism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, vol. 2, Ecology. London: Routledge, pp. 213-42.

*** Shnirelman, V. 2002. ‘“Christians! Go home”: A Revival of Neo-Paganism between the Baltic Sea and Transcaucasia (An Overview)’, Journal of Contemporary Religion 17(2): 197-211 (quote p.197).

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