Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched: Paganism and Scholarship Series (archive 2012)

Saul Epstein is a Canaanite and a Jew, which he see sas a variety of Canaanite. Unlike Natib Qadish, which has a focus on Bronze Age Ugarit, or others who focus on Iron Age Phoenicians, he began to think of myself as a cosmopolitan Canaanite. He studies and honor the whole spectrum from Lithic hints through Greek and Roman Syria, through contributions to Christian and Muslim successors, and to Judaism itsel He is also a lifelong resident of Kansas City: the civic culture of the US and its roots in post-Roman Europe, the traditions of my neighbors — innovated and inherited — and the spirits of the land itself play significant roles in his religion.

Skepoet: What is your religious background and how did you come to it?

Saul Epstein: I was born and raised Jewish, drifted through unexamined atheism to metaphysical nihilism, back to a more examined atheism with shades of pantheism. I did all this without ever giving up a sense of Jewish identity, or feeling a need to. Discussions with some serious polytheists forced me to give the idea consideration I’d never bothered with before, and I found that it provided a harmonious space for a variety of cherished ideas.

Growing outrage at the policies of the Israeli state and attendant tension between it and what I viewed as laudable Jewish ideals reached a breaking point during the 2006 invasion of Lebanon. I contemplated disowning Jewish identity, but then happened to read Jonathan Kirsch’s The Woman who Laughed at God. I decided Judaism, flaws and all, is too important to my identity to abandon, and that I would stay, celebrate and criticize, keeping my small voice in the long argument.

Skepoet:  What is your academic background?

Saul Epstein: I have a BA in linguistics. I also attended a Jewish “day” school through 8th grade — which I’m not sure would ordinarily count as part of my academic background, but I mention in light of the following question.

Skepoet:  How do you see these interacting with each other?

Saul Epstein: With regard to my degree, I can’t say that I’ve ever given that much thought. Personal interest led me to include classes in archaeology, anthropology, mythology, philosophy and religion among my electives, and I know those both satisfied and engendered curiosity related to where I was coming from and where I wound up going. There’s been more exploration of that outside of formal education than in. But probably I explore the way I do in part due to having some academic background.

Attending the primary school that I did gave me early, relatively deep exposure to the idea and the practice of religion as culture, though the forms to which I was exposed didn’t swallow me. I think that experience helped make me, at my best, a better participant and a better critique. And, of course, it strengthened the special tie I feel to Yiddish tradition and Semitic generally.
Skepoet: Do you find it hard practicing in a Canaanite tradition where so much of the history has been obscured partly because of international conflicts between religious Jews and Muslim Palestinians?  What sources do you use for your reconstruction?

Saul Epstein:  I don’t know that the conflicts going on there recently present special obscurity that wouldn’t be faced by… almost anyone. The heavy damage was done by early Jews in the heartland as they worked to convince themselves that they weren’t Canaanite; then by Rome against Carthage; then by Christian Rome — but that affected many; then by Islam.

In my own view, though, each stage has been as much about the evolution of the underlying culture as it’s been about destruction, and as much about subversion as suppression (deliberate or not in either case). So there was a lot of water under the bridge by the time recent conflicts got started, and I don’t know that the current players are doing that much additional damage
even accidentally.

Unless… you mean material remains in the south Levant that have doubtless been destroyed by the recent conflicts and even when preserved have been subject to misappropriate interpretation by parties more interested in providing justification for their religious or nationalist agenda than in sound research. That certainly withholds — sometimes permanently —
information that would be enormously helpful and meaningful.

But even there, effectively similar processes have been at work throughout the historical Canaanite sphere, parts of which are relatively far from Israel. And even when destruction hasn’t been due to conflict, it’s only been a recent and spotty phenomenon that destruction by “development” hasn’t been widespread. And material recovery left undone because it’s been more important to spend money on weapons and corruption. But, all those are general problems.

I’m not at all a strict reconstructionist (which term seems to mean different things to different people anyway) or any kind of purist. The latter would be a personal conflict and also seems to contradict extensive evidence that historical Canaanites (as with many in the wider
region/period) tended both to tolerate foreign cults (at least at safe distances) and to be as enthusiastic to trade “intellectual property” as they were to trade goods.

As my distinctive practices (to the extent they’re separate from continued participation in family Judaism) are relatively simple and often ad hoc, I tend to seek out sources primarily for non-specific inspiration and to deepen my sense of connectedness. I use whatever I can get hold of, though use of most of it requires some degree of deconstruction. But any period remains from or making reference to Canaan, Phoenicia, Carthage, Syria or cities or colonies thereof, from roughly 1500 years before the calendar through the first few centuries of the calendar form the core. Earlier remains from the eastern Mediterranean are generally of interest; later remains from a wider area, too, though they increasingly require special deconstruction.

References don’t have to be verbal, so I keep an eye out for what used to be called “Orientalizing” in Greek and other contexts. But as far as text, I rely most heavily on what constitute the core of the core: recoveries from Ugarit and Ebla, and the Hebrew Bible. Then I compare sources from nearby THAT context and from nearby my lived context to my felt sense of the principles and themes of that core and to my personal “voice” and make use
of what agrees or complements.

Skepoet: So you are not a reconstructionist.  How do you feel about the seemingly increasing influence on reconstructionism on paganism?

Saul Epstein: Though I’m not a reconstructionist, I have tendencies and sympathies that direction. The stories of how elements of the present arrived are both essential and deeply meaningful to me, as are recoveries and survivals of records and artifacts. My interest in the past is personal in ways that don’t avail themselves to external justification, but I also see it as a critical aspect of ancestor veneration.

At the same time, I reject that we are or should be dominated by the past. Ancestors mixed innovation into their own practice, sometimes radically, and I know of no basis from which to determine a tradition has achieved perfection, especially given that context always changes. Ancestors also made mistakes, and veneration is in no way at odds with honest recognition of that.

So, principally I’m delighted by increased reconstructionist activity within the larger sphere of paganity. It being seen as a growing and viable option means there are more pagans overall and (an even more selfish consideration) reconstructionists do a lot of very good, very time-consuming work both in research and implementation that the rest of us can then make use of. And those of us who can operate in both mythological and historical modes very much appreciate that, and like to help when we can.

I do have two qualms, which aren’t necessarily related to reconstruction itself, but which do seem to come up a lot with regard to it. One is an occasional tendency to evaluate certain kinds of expertise or adherence to certain reconstructions as either best or exclusively good, not only for oneself and one’s closest fellows, but for everyone. I see this as less a problem of reconstruction itself and more a problem facing pagans (or perhaps humanity) in general. The other is a tendency to expect pursuit of a given path (especially a reconstruction) to be tied hard to a prior ethnic identity of a given person. I don’t discount the role such identity plays – it does for me, after all – but it troubles me when people move to close groups or individuals – to say nothing of gods! – off from each other based on it.

I see ancestry as including but not limited to the genetic, the linguistic, etc.

Skepoet: What do you say to the critique that a lot of neo-paganism is escapism?

Saul Epstein: Charges of escapism are so often empty cover for unhappiness that someone or something fails to comply with some number of established dictates, or fails to grant some number of unstated premises, that I have an unfortunate tendency to dismiss them out of hand. And I’m always tempted to ask, “Escape from what? To what?”

Even if the critique is that being pagan in a non-pagan society diverts or dissipates adherents’ energies away from participation in the larger society that might result in positive change, I see no evidence that pagan religions act more as channels away than they act as channels toward. And I don’t know what would necessarily make them more prone one way or another than religion on the whole – or than art, for that matter.

If the means by which one organizes her experiences and actions make her own life and the lives of those around her more pleasant, more meaningful, more beautiful, I consider those means admirable for her and am grateful if I get to be one of those around her, and that probably sounds pretty escapist.

Skepoet: What do you think about the divisions between Reconstructionists and Neo-pagans which seem to being getting more polarized.  Do you see this as a real a problem?

Saul Epstein: I wondered if you were using “neo-paganism” in a somewhat narrow sense in the previous question, perhaps even specifically as distinct from reconstruction.

By Neo-pagans, do you mean Wiccan types? Ceremonial magicians of the Anglo-Euro esoteric or spiritist types? New Age? I tend to lump all those together as neo-Romantics, one collection of ways to be pagan.

If I’m on the right track at all… I see the distinction between that and reconstruction as real and something to be respected. Polarization seems to be unnecessary, and therefore a waste of spirit at best, and therefore a real problem only to the extent that we allow it to occur and grow.

Among the things I’ve always hoped pagans, especially those coming from positions of extreme minority, could cultivate among themselves and hold up as examples is an elaboration of the hospitality so many of us hold dear, which carefully recognizes when one is the host, when one is the guest, when strangers meet on more or less equal terms whether hosted by some other or not, and what the different responsibilities are in each case. It’s natural for people to want to surround themselves with similar and familiar, and that can be most strongly felt by someone weary of being the stranger. But it’s not always possible and it’s not always best.

From just a practical perspective, pagans face some shared challenges from the same sources and thus seem to be natural allies in at least some struggles. Since there’s no need for one group to somehow “win” theological, cosmological, or even ritual arguments over others, why should they make up political arguments?

Skepoet: What dichotomy do you use to classify pagan groups?

Saul Epstein: Do you mean to distinguish pagan from non-pagan?

Skepoet: No, more like how do you distinguish between one pagan type from another?

Saul Epstein: Oh, like a typology or taxonomy. That’s something I never did on my own, but began doing in response to recent disputes and debates over what belongs under the pagan umbrella, in terms of features, whole groups, etc. And it’s still not something I find too much value in doing, except to be able to participate in such conversations.

Partly, I like to reserve for myself the right to name (or label) myself, and to have those names be recognized as my names. If I expect that for myself, I have to grant it to others. So it’s not my business to be telling anyone that she is or isn’t X, or a real X, because of Y.

Patterns can be observed, of course, and the observations can be shared and compared when context welcomes it.

In particular the bright line some would draw between reconstruction and… anything else?… has often struck me as odd. Sure, reconstructions share an interest in and commitment to demonstrable historical details and harmonizing contemporary practice and attitude with those details. But beyond that, they would seem by definition to be as different from each other as any one of them is different from… whatever it is to which they’re being contrasted as a group. Perhaps more so. If they aren’t, doesn’t that say something about the limits (conscious or otherwise) to which traditions tend to get chosen for reconstruction, or how far it’s possible for people to really get out of their birth-cultures in order to get at a reconstruction?

Of course, before I’ve done too much speculation about such things, I realize that part of why I don’t engage heavily in making these sorts of distinctions is that I don’t feel that I know or understand enough. It’s likely I don’t fully understand what reconstruction is about.

So I suppose the short answer is that I distinguish groups from each other by listening to how people name themselves and their groups. Types take that into account, but also my observations, and in any case have been a reluctant reaction to the asserted typologies of others.

Skepoet: What do you think are the primary concerns with the pagan movement at the moment?    I know this is a vague question, but I am interested in what people see as important within the community.

Saul Epstein: The primary concern seems to be identity: what makes this one what she is and what she’s not, both as distinct from other pagans and from not pagan; why she holds those ideas or to those practices and not others; whether that commitment is important enough to attempt transmission to one’s children and, if so, how. I think anxiety about identity drives a lot of conflict among pagans, even some not otherwise given to drawing up sides.

I consider these concerns important because they seem so important to so many others. That they aren’t directly that important to me I merely consider an interesting contrast. As for what I think the primary concerns _should_ be, I would have us focus on changing more societies around the world in ways that make them more comfortable with and for diversity. Whatever else may divide us, as traditions or as individuals, we are mostly religious minorities and depend on majorities for whatever religious freedoms we have or wish for. And I would have us reflect that concern inward in the ways we treat each other.

Skepoet:  What does this identity focus actually imply? For example, most pagans ethos is communitarian in orientation, but the communities in which most neo-paganism is focused is technically speaking recreated and greatly in contrast to dominant culture. That puts the ethics of say Hellenismos or Asatru in radical department from its community of historical origin.

Saul Epstein: I think it implies at least two things, which can be complementary.

More obvious, and more common, it implies a collection of dissatisfactions with formal or conceptual aspects of the dominant culture or of an individual’s felt role in that culture. The situation is an ironic inversion of mid to late Antiquity, when the dominant culture WAS pagan but presented with increasingly vigorous experimentation with cults which turned from state or community and multiplicities of gods toward the individual and her relationship to one particular god. One difference, though, is that such cults seem to have been around in different forms long before the big empires, and to have been generally tolerated comfortably – some highly respected.

So, in other words, the dominance of the present dominant culture seems more total, which would seem to lend itself to greater levels of dissatisfaction. Not only that: a dominant culture which is pagan, especially in the classical sense, has more room to tolerate or celebrate religious diversity than a dominant culture which attaches moral implications to EXCLUSIVE devotion to itself.

Some of the dissatisfaction probably derives precisely from the way many contemporary societies present obstacles to community formation, and the appeal of communitarian reconstruction may lie partly there. It’s even possible that some of the intertwining of prior ethnic identity with reconstruction is driven by a desire to ground new community formation in something seen as not chosen, so as to make communities thus formed seem less ad hoc and more durable.

Less obvious, perhaps less common, it implies at least the potential for a critique of post-medieval Western religion which critique is not itself antipathetic to religion more generally.

Skepoet:  How do you think the pagan community reconcile the tensions between the reconstructists and the neo-pagan occultists?

Saul Epstein: I don’t know. And by that I mean several things. I don’t pretend to deeply understand the tension – or for that matter the tensions I’ve noticed between some reconstructionists themselves, or between some occultists themselves, or between some of either of those groups and ecstatics or aesthetes. To be sure, it contributes that some people make stronger and broader claims than others, which in turn causes some people to feel a need to make counter claims, or just put effort into refuting others’.

I also don’t know how important it is that the tensions be reconciled – if that means reduced. I oscillate there between hope, despair and indifference. Without some established authority to ensure otherwise, most vibrant communities and societies are full of such tension. What may matter most is that we find modes through which to conduct our arguments and other business which promote us being a community, a society – allies (or at least trading partners) instead of enemies. Of course, that challenge is human rather than pagan. What may make the need acute for pagans is that we do have powerful enemies who are enemies of pagandom rather than this or that variety of it, and therefore we stand in need of each other as allies.

I do hope that pagans can be wise about the past, recent and distant, historical and mythological – and learn not to repeat our own mistakes or those of the various totalists. But to do that we do need to be able to see them as mistakes, rather than worthy models in which our particular tribe just played the losing role last time. In other words, we can’t pursue veneration that precludes critique; better to see critique as a necessary element of veneration. It would also help if each of our groups and traditions developed a better sense of boundaries, not as walls but as demarcations, a means for each of us to know when she stands inside (and subject to, even as a guest) a given group’s way, but also when two or more of us stand outside together and are equally guests with only unfamiliar spirits our hosts. I think we have all the tools we need, if we decide to use them.

Skepoet: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

Saul Epstein: Just to convey my thanks to you and the readers for the interest. All the interviews have given me much to consider. And if anyone has further questions or comments for me, I can be contacted as, or through my slow-stuttering blog at


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