Occultum Literarum and All That Stuff

Takeaways from the Upper Midwest Regional American Academy of Religion/Society for Biblical Literature Conference April 9-11 2021…

  • When I was a grad student, this region and its conference supported and promoted my research on Paganism when many conferences of religious studies would not. I presented frequently in their Religions in North America session, which I inherited the convening of. I also, with the region’s blessing, set up a New Religions session so other scholars of Paganism, the Modern Occult or any other fresh movement being researched had a place to present. I was pleased not only with the excellent quality of scholarship that I got to choose from in both sessions, but both also had a significant presence of Paganism, Magical religions, the Occult, and Demonology.
  • One presenter, sharing with us her scholarship on modern magic, noted that we were sitting on the anniversary of the revelation of the Book of the Law. How lovely!
  • The same presenter gave excellent scholarship on Western magic and how over time, the exclusionary tactic of danger, and of magical work being potentially dangerous to the practitioner if not properly trained, is evaporating for a more accessible message, a democratization of sorts. With so many grimoires and guides about “magic for all” being created and published these days — as opposed to knowledge being held in care by those who deem  initiates ready and worthy of it — she was able to make an excellent argument…and much for us to think about with regard to the cultural and social role of magic.
  • Damn right, Eliphas Levi was an armchair magician! About time someone said that.
  • The Paganism study was about public Pagan responses to the January 6th insurrection on the US Capitol building (no, not that goofball with the horns, whatever about who that guy is). In particular, the scholar noted that the Pagan movement does have a history of creating rituals and reinterpreting American Civil religious symbolism  (think of the eye above the pyramid, the founding fathers as Freemasons, or E pluribus Unum ) that shifted the movement’s focus from a strictly oppositional cultural one (i.e., Vietnam-era, anti-war, civil rights, liberal) to one that embraces Liberty as an American goddess, and pride in an American identity peppered with notions of a new occult order. It’s true — it really has grown from a hippie-esque movement to one that has its own military and socially conservative members. The diversity is important — and an interesting tension point in regard to American Pagan identity.
  • You’d better believe I’m staying in touch with those two.
  • I had no idea who the 19th-20th century Canadian writer Mary MacLane was before this conference, but I’m looking forward to reading her diary and her musings on her hopes to have a lusty and meaningful relationship with the Devil. She evidently thought he’d make a great husband — and a guide toward a full, sensuous, wordly, truly lived life, which she craved as a bored but bright 19-year-old woman. (Hell, I’d let him buy me a drink.)
  • Satanic Feminism is a book. Feminist Satanists are for real too. My advisor, doing research on Satanists about 15 to 20 years ago, learned of an organization in Portage, WI called the Temple of Lylyth. It was an all-women’s Satanic coven. I’m still kicking myself for not learning more about them when I was living in Milwaukee.
  • More considerations that will need more writing about, and yeah, I’ll muse here — “playful demonology”; challenges to the word “enchantment” as a definer of religious experience; and demonization as an act of resistance …
  • We took a break from Satan, sex, and magic and were treated to — important for those of us who are nature reverent — a really lovely presentation on the Biblical prophetic voice in the literature of ecological vision (think Rachel Carson. John Muir, Aldo Leopold). If you are sitting on this sacred spinning ball of miraculous mud and can’t see the absolute magic in the motions of a grasshopper, or the river water in our veins, and not want to cry from the mountaintops to save it from our own ignorance… I mean… what the hell is the matter with you?
  • Then we went back to Hell and learned about performative Christian exorcisms. Two main thrusts — a mix of pop-cultural depictions with Charismatic and Pentecostal-style ecstatic worship styles; and the observations of Christian missionaries doing their work in other countries, who see the exorcism rites of the indigenous religions they encountered. Intriguing. Do those observations create a need before unknown? Or is there a realization that, hell, Jesus cast out demons, these folks cast out demons, maybe we’d better get on it too?…
  • I went to the Jewish studies session to hear a presentation on Jewish comparative demonology. That presenter never showed up. Oh dear…
  • A fascinating anthropological project in the Jewish studies session, though: the scholar is tracking down the whereabouts of Torah scrolls that aren’t in Jewish possession (think Christian seminaries, museums, private collections) and is not only looking to create a provenance for these scrolls, but to actually see how these non-Jewish institutions use and interact with them. Evidently, wherever or whenever the scroll is from and dated, Christians in these contexts see them simply as, here’s the kind of Bible Jesus handled. Jews absolutely know there is a difference between a Tunisian scroll and a Polish one, a medieval one from a modern one and there is a book-object provenance that needs to be recorded and analyzed.
  • Torah is embodied. too. The presenter on worship being in the body and performance, especially in the practices of Jewish women, not only delivered her text on her project, but a video of her dancing for a sacred performance event — an emotional solo dance in a black flamenco dress, stomping red shoes, her lyrical hands moving skyward and through the air… and per the time and place, a mask. It was a welcome change of pace from all the talking we do too much of. (And evidently, if you want to understand the influence of Miriam, study the music and dance of Sephardic Jewish women) …
  • It was good to be back, even if by Zoom. And it was good to be engaged again with my terrific colleagues. I get to decide if I will present next year on my grant project — archiving Pagan culture — or on studying hoodoo via correspondence…

           More to come… much musing to be had here…

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