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This year The Witches' Almanac visits with Margo Adler, the acclaimed author, journalist, lecturer, Wiccan priestess, and correspondent for Nation Public Radio. Her books include Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshippers, and other Pagans in America Today; Heretic's Heart: A Journey Through Spirit and Revolution; and Vampires Are Us: Understanding Our Love Affair with the Immortal Dark Side
It has been about thirty-five years since the publication of your groundbreaking book, Drawing Down the Moon. At that time you surveyed the personal behavior and common practices of a large portion of the personalities who comprised the Public Pagan Witchcraft movement. What were the most common affectations and personal characteristics you encountered and reported in Drawing Down the Moon? What stood out to you?
Looking back, I think I wrote Drawing Down the Moon, partly because the Pagan and Wiccan experiences I was having in New York City were not big enough, large enough, filled with ideas. And eight times a year I would receive the Green Egg Magazine. And in it were some fifty pages of letters from the most interesting Pagans and Wiccans; it was intellectually so much more interesting than what I was experiencing in the coven I was in.
Starhawk and I often joke that our books, Spiral Dance and Drawing Down the Moon, which came out on the same day, were both an attempt to describe the movement we wanted to exist, more than the one we were both experiencing, and lo and behold, eventually, that movement actually came to be. As for the people in the book, they, like me, were all searching for a vibrant, juicy Earth religion, that would be in harmony with the Earth and that would provide some of the same things indigenous religions provide: the songs, the stories, the sense of being a common tribe, and a relationship with the Earth that was non-exploitative, or, to be honest, less exploitative. The most amazing thing I found was how common was the experience of people encountering Paganism for the first time: Oh, I always knew I had a religion, I just never knew its name. The feeling that it was a homecoming, something one had always known, but never had the words for.
Over the years since the publication of Drawing Down the Moon, are there any particular individuals that you chronicled who remained on your radar and influenced you on your own personal path?
Many people influenced me. The first thing to take me out of my very limited New York experience besides Green Egg, was reading Nemeton, which was a Pagan magazine that was written by, among others, Alison Harlow and the Pagan bard, Gwydion Pendderwen. Alison, who was trained by Victor Anderson, and was one of the original initiates into his Fairy tradition, became a close friend. Oddly we had attended the same crazy, wonderful, progressive school in Greenwich Village, although twelve years apart. This is really unusual, because there were only twenty people at most in a grade. But that school, in which I spent a whole year studying ancient Greece, and which also gave me my first May Day ceremony, is very responsible for my Pagan journey. And I would bet for Alison's too. Other people who influenced me included Selena Fox, the Zells, Harold Moss of the Church of the Eternal Source, Morgan McFarland who led a Texas Dianic group that included men, Aiden Kelly and Glenn Turner who spearheaded the NROOGD tradition, and many more.
In Drawing Down the Moon there was a necessary focus on the who, what, and where of the movement which was clearly an important factor for you to cover. Are there any aspects of the "why we do it" which might not have been included, which you could add to the record now at this point?
I think we have a deep need for roots. There is a saying that all of us, if we go far enough back, our ancestors were Pagan. Now, for the Irish that might only be 700 years, and for some in Eastern Europe, it might only be since the Industrial Revolution, and for Jews it might be thousands of years, but it's a real truth. And most of us Americans have been brought up in a white bread culture, without the juice of powerful traditions. Also we want those traditions in a modern context without the dogma that so often comes with them. We want to dance around a fire into the night, and still be a teacher, scientist, doctor, writer, whatever, the next morning. The Holy Rollers definitely have the juice we want; we just want it in a very modern, rationalist context. We want to be mystics and rationalists at the same time. And creating these revived traditions was one way to get there. When I lecture, one of the things I often say is that most of us in the room, who are usually mostly white, are rooting around in the ashes; we have lost both the good and the bad aspects of ancient traditions. If we are black, those traditions were destroyed by slavery. If we are Native American, most of those traditions were destroyed by colonialism, and if we are white, which most in the audience usually are, those traditions were destroyed by immigration and assimilation. Now, some of those traditions were awful. My mother, who was brought up Jewish, was only allowed the 25 cent Hebrew teacher who taught her to say the words, while her brother was allowed the 50 cent teacher who also taught him the meaning of words. My mother was born in 1908, so this was in the teens and twenties in Brooklyn. No wonder she ran away from home at 18, worked in a factory to put herself through teacher's college, and staked out a new life filled with bohemians, the works of Alan Watts and Zen.
So we want the juice and the mystery without the dogma. We want to live in the modern world.<
Pantheacon 2014 has just wrapped up and I am aware that you were an attendee. Did you find that your discoveries back in the 1970's still hold after all this time, or that the new generation of witches and Pagans have moved into new territory? By the same token have the people who you chronicled back then maintained a consistent path or do you see any significant changes?
In the last fifteen there has been so much change. Multigenerational Pagans, Pagan chaplains, Pagan headstones at Arlington, first the pentacle, now Thor's Hammer, peer reviewed Pagan magazines, and schools with real substance like Cherry Hill. Pagans are involved seriously in interfaith, in charity events. Almost none of this was true twenty years ago. Pagans are dealing with old age, with death, and the traditions are multiplying. The whole re-constructionist field, reconstructions of Greek, Egyptian, Celtic, Druidic, Roman, Kemetic, Eastern European religions are multiplying. People's entry into Paganism has changed. It used to be that they, like me, found a group, whatever was in the neighborhood, and there was no way to really choose, you took what you got, and later as the festival movement of the late seventies and eighties came into existence you had a chance to discover new traditions and broaden out. Now, many people come into Paganism through the Internet, through festivals, or large Pagan organizations, and only later some may find a working group, coven, kindred, grove, etc. I know in my heart that had this been the situation in 1971-72 when I began my search, I would not have ended up in Wicca, but probably in Hellenic Paganism, but I knew of no groups that existed at the time.
There are loads of new young people coming into our Earth Religious movement, and one of the main topics that I found fascinating at Pantheacon this year was the question of Wiccan privilege. There are many young re-constructionists who have trouble with the word Pagan, and somehow think it stands for Wicca, which it definitely does not. Pagan is from Paganus, of the country, and in many languages it just means “the people.” It is the religions not of the book, the religions that don't have prophets, that rise from the people and the Earth, and myths from thousands of years ago. It is the religions that are more tribal than creedal. Wicca is a small part of Paganism, and, quite frankly, from my perspective, not the most interesting or important part. It is Paganism as a whole that provides an ecological alternative to the religions that see humans on top and not as part of a vibrant whole, that see the Earth as just a place we are passing through, and therefore not particularly worth spending time saving. But at Pantheacon, there were many young people who spoke of feeling that Wiccans were so dominant that many ceremonies excluded them. That was something I hadn't heard before. There is also a growing division between those who see the gods as "real" and those who have more metaphoric, archetypal orientation, as I do. There are atheist and agnostic Pagans. And sometimes we are all of those things at once. I know that I can have an experience where the gods are totally real, and in another moment I see them as metaphor. I hope this division does not intensify, and that we can continue to be part of the same family. I have been to Pantheacon many times, and it is one of the best places to really see the length and breadth of Paganism. There were more than 2300 people this time. It's also a heck of a lot of fun!
The book Vampires Are Us started out as a meditation on mortality as my husband was dying, but it went to very different places, and examined questions of power and identity and our relationship to the environment. It started out as a sermon, given in six mostly Unitarian churches, morphed into an essay and finally a book.
Nina Auerbach wrote, “Every age embraces the vampire it needs.” Dracula was clearly an expression of England’s fear of disease and immigration at a time when it had the largest ports in the world. But what were our needs, now? No one seemed to have an answer about why vampires have such traction in our culture at the moment. The major insight that came to me was that most of the popular vampires of the last thirty or more years have been conflicted, desperately struggling to be moral despite being predators, often failing in that struggle, but trying to overcome their need for blood. It’s exactly who we are now, as we face a planet in threat, only our blood is oil and we are sucking the life blood out of the planet. I also realized that one of the first truly conflicted vampires was Barnabas in Dark Shadows. And while he appeared in ‘67, he really wasn’t even called a vampire until 1968. That was the year we first saw the Earth from space, a small, blue, fragile planet that the astronauts could blot out with their thumb. We suddenly realized our vulnerability and our responsibility and moral complicity. Two years later we had the first Earth Day, our vision and views of our relationship to the Earth changed in that moment. And our vampires changed as well.
That’s a tiny bit of it, but there is much more.