New England Neo-Pagans: Medievalism, Fantasy, Religion

Article excerpt

Last June I had dinner with Jane and Mary, women I've known for more than 20 years, but neither would answer to those names. They live in Connecticut. One works for Yale and the other for Time/Warner: these are their "day jobs." In their real lives, they are members of the medievalist Neo-Pagan sub-culture.(1)

Paganism, the ultimate "Old-Time Religion," has been part of the American scene since the 1960s. The movement's ascendancy has been linked by the media to everything from feminism to environmentalism to New Age spirituality. It is less well-known, however, that many practitioners of the Neo-Pagan traditions came to their new consciousness primarily through interest in fantasy fiction and the Middle Ages. Neo-Pagans make colorful copy; most newspaper and magazine articles focus on the content and character of their rituals and worship. I will not dwell on those more sensational topics: instead, through interviews with practitioners and examination of some of their favored literature, I will reveal their alternative view of the Middle Ages.

An article in Boston Magazine by Beth Wolfensberger summarizes the varied appeals of modern paganism to different groups of converts:

...feminists take up Paganism for its mariarchal origins, gays and lesbians adopt it for the acceptance it affords them, and environmentalists embrace it for its reverence for the Earth....As for the Robert Bly-inspired men's movement, Arthen is not impressed: "Pagan men," he says, "have been doing those things for a lot longer than those people have." (133)

Neo-Pagans like the coven leader Andras Corben Arthen, quoted above, believe that their practices are not 20th-century fabrications but are instead continuations of ancient traditions or re-creations derived from the collective unconscious memory. Their worldview is that of a truly "marginalized" folk, persecuted by monotheistic faiths and effaced from the official histories of the past. Even the name many prefer for their beliefs, "wicca," (the Old English word "wicce," wise or cunning one, invariably mispronounced), is a consciously medievalist coinage, invoking the time before the Renaissance and Reformation, the period current witches call "The Burning Time."(2)

The folk belonging to this sub-culture do not form part of a monolithic or hierarchical faith: there are no dogmas, and no Pope, Grand Mufti or even a widely accepted priesthood. Thus any generalization I make about Neo-Pagans in New England will probably be disputed by a practitioner in another part of the United States. Seemingly wild combinations of beliefs can exist even within the same coven; theirs is a true polytheism akin in a way to the first centuries of syncretistic Christianity, when local deities could be subsumed into Mary or the saints. Wolfensberger alludes to this syncretism as shown in the Pagan saying "Different gods for different bods,"..."Pagans can choose their own pantheon--Greek, Roman, Norse, anything" (62-63). Like many late-20th-century "communities," Neo-Pagans have a self-made culture, complete with its own history and folklore.

Most of the New England Neo-Pagans are also writers or fans of neo-medievalist fantasy, and most are members as well of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), another medievalist sub-culture. Those I interviewed for this study were all members of the SCA, and I refer to them (as requested) by the persona names they created for that organization, which "recreates the arts and skills of Medieval Europe within the framework of the times," according to one SCA leaflet. My chief informant, Arwen, is a more scholarly medievalist than the others; though she has no formal academic affiliation, she has studied Scandinavian phiology and runes at the University of Oslo.

Arwen places herself in the tradition of scholarly collecting and examination of Norse runes that goes back as far as 1505 when Olaus Magnus collected folk customs, including those relating to "witchcraft," and compared them to those known from Greece and Rome. …

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