Now for something completely different… Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched, Or the Pagan Interviews, Part 2

Interview with Neo-Classicist Pagan Eric Riley.

Skepoet:   Can I get your religious orientation and background please?

Eric Riley:  I consider myself Neo-Classicist. I do devotions to the Roman Gods, following a model as established in the literature of Cato and Ovid. However, I am not a strict reconstructionist. I have been involved in the Neo-Pagan community for years and I have adopted many of the traditional Wicca derived practices such as circles, quarters, and the fire festival cycle. It’s become a lingua franca among the greater Neo-Pagan community, and the one in DC is quite large. My personal research of late has been skewing toward occultism and hermetic magick, in the vein of Crowley, Levi and the Golden Dawn.

What about my background would you like to know?

Skepoet:   How has your academic background affected your beliefs in brief? Or, to put it another way, how has studying humanities affected your Neo-classical elements in your religion?

Eric Riley   :  It deepened them. When I was young I was raised agnostic with a vaguely Christian bent. However, my personal reading, of which there was a LOT was always rooted in mythology. I could recount cycles upon cycles of Greek myths as a child, but couldn’t begin to tell you about Jesus. It was all so foreign.

When I went to the University of Cincinnati my student worker assignment had me working in the library at the Classics Department. There I fell head over heels in love with Classics and Libraries. And I’ve never stopped. I got a minor in Classical Civilizations and did a bunch of personal research into the cults of the Roman Empire, specifically the cults of Cybele and Attis and the Mithras cult.

Later as I began exploring Paganism as a personally meaningful religion I immediately fell to the Roman pantheon. The connections I had to them were so much deeper than a vague archetypal Goddess or God. I knew them personally. Knew their stories, and their meanings. Wicca was oddly a kind of gateway that led me to more focused research into the classical Gods.

I really started expanding upon the Religio Romana in my personal life when I left graduate school. I began building altars to the Gods in my home and following devotional practices as outlined in Cato, with expansions borrowed from here and there as well. My training in Latin and Greek literature was the foundation I needed to go further.

Someone once told me that Christians consider themselves people of “the book” whereas Pagans are people of “books.” I believe that. I am a voracious reader of esoteric literature, and all the reading I do shape the work and experience in my devotional practice in some ways.

At one point I attempted to build a unified catalog system among Pagan libraries, of which there are a great number out here on the East Coast. The project suffered under a lack of buy-in on the part of the parties involved in its creation. But I believe a time will come to revive it.

Skepoet:   : How do you feel about the influence of Wiccan ideas on the larger Neo-pagan movement? Many people I know in Religio Romana and Hellensimos are ambivalent at best.

Eric Riley:  I feel like much of the modern Pagan movement has been about creating ritual that is based on personal revelation and personal connection to the divine. The framework within we work is often just a stepping stone to exploring that connection. I think that Wicca has been a great framework for many people. The ubiquities of Wiccan literature through popular bookstores and Pagan publishers like Llewellyn and Red Wheel/Weiser have meant that more people are exposed to Wicca before any other Pagan faiths. It’s a bridge to exploring other areas, and I know a lot of people who have moved from Wicca to Asatru, Reconstructionist trads, Santeria, ADF, or even building their own cult cobbled together from research and personal revelation. The fact that most everyone is conversant in Wicca is a good thing I think, and will eventually change over time.

American Paganism is pretty syncretic over all. I don’t think I know a single Pagan in American who hasn’t studied across a number of traditions to find the one that spoke to their personal feelings and faith. I think that syncretism is healthy, and encourages expansion and exploration. That’s part of the reason why I identify as Neo-Classical. I don’t follow rites exactly, but pretty closely. Sometimes I operate in a Wiccan mode, and sometimes in something more ecstatic as things move me. It’s kind of liberating in that way. A lot of the public rituals I’ve been to have been pretty heavily scripted, but the best ones are where you don’t know what’s going to happen. Especially when someone is aspecting or channeling a deity, and they speak to you. That’s often some of the most powerful magic I have ever seen. There have been two festivals of Hekate that I’ve been to that were mind-blowingly powerful. I don’t believe that Hekate herself was worshipped in this manner in Greece, but the method was less relevant than the message.. And I believe with my heart that she spoke to me through her priestesses..

That’s what I’m talking about. The methods are only a means of providing focus to the real thing, which is connection with the divine. Paganism is a faith of immanent divinity, and ritual is how we get there. So if it’s circles and swords, that’s fine. If it’s a sacrifice of a chicken, I’m fine with it. If it’s covering my head and praying aloud, I’m down with it. What matters is that I am heard, and that I hear as well. Whether I truly understand is something else.

Skepoet:   Do you think the internet has changed the dependence on like the popular Occult publications a bit? Do you see this as part of the slow growth of Reconstructionist religion?

Eric Riley:  I don’t know that it has changed the dependence on the occult publishers. Pagan publishing is still somewhat of a growth industry. Though with the death of Borders we may see a precipitous drop in sales, Borders was one of the largest carriers of Pagan books.

But that’s not the question, it’s has the internet changed dependence on publications. I think it has increased awareness of breadth of scope. In the pre-internet era I wouldn’t have known to go looking for Reconstructionist Pagans where I lived. My exposure to contemporary Paganism was what I could find in the book stores. With the advent of the internet people could discover just how far the Pagan community can go beyond Wicca. Not to mention making available a wide variety of texts online to support these new cults.

Part of what I’m seeing in the development of the Pagan community now is an attempt to find paths that have more solid footing. I don’t know why that is. But at one of the local Pagan conferences there has been this influx of Santeria influence among those people who in previous years were in a more Celtic influenced pantheon. I don’t know if it is the ecstatic nature of Santeria, or if it stems from the strict lineage hierarchy that has built up among modern Santeros. I think there’s a bit of both at play.

But with Reconstructionists I often see that it’s about having more concrete guidelines, and less wiggle room. I think that people are looking for that kind of permanent truth and correct way of practicing a faith that they would have found in a mainline protestant faith. Some people can’t live with moral relativism, or even relativistic spiritual practice. They want structure in their faith, because that can provide structure to their life.

Skepoet:    Your last paragraph almost sounds like a critique of the Reconstructionist movement. Do you mean it as such or just a statement of fact?

Eric Riley: I think its an observation of facts more than a critique. A lot of what I’m seeing happen in the modern Pagan movement is migrating away from “make it up as you go along” rituals toward more concrete structures that have firmer black and white lines. There is also an element of “correctness” in ritual that you find more in Reconstructionism than in other modern Pagan faiths. The exception to that rule would be Brit Traditional Wicca, specifically Gardernian and Alexandrian Wicca, which flows from lineage priesthood. There is an element of concrete rite in there that is also less flexible than in those Wiccan traditions which came out of American roots via Buckland and Starhawk.

A major factor in all of this is that the vast majority of people practicing Pagan religions today are converts. There are only a handful of people who are born into Paganism and were raised in a particular faith tradition. Most of us come to it as adults, and as a result we often come with baggage from previous faiths. Some of that baggage is about determining right and wrong, as Christianity is very big on laying out the ground rules of what is morally acceptable and not. Many Pagan faiths operate in a kind of morally grey area, while recognizing that personal responsibility and personal accountability for one’s actions must always be born in mind. For those people coming from a previous faith tradition that may have been very morally controlling there may be a desire within that person to have a similar experience in their Pagan faith. Not necessarily that they will have a minister who will dictate morals and ethics, but at least that they will have a text and culture within that faith that spells things out explicitly.

It may also be a product of the times. With things in the US being as socially chaotic as they have been since 9/11, I think that people are looking for more stable footing in their faith. When the faith is wishy-washy it doesn’t provide that port in the emotional storm that one may need to maintain a feeling of safety.

Skepoet:   I understand the psychological investment needed for more stable faith or ritual needs: In a sense that makes a lot of sense in lines of development. Arguably the Abrahamic religions went through similar periods of development, but those origins are much more obscure. How do you see any legitimate dangers of the impulse? For example, often Asatru and Heathenry have been have developed, perhaps an unearned, reputation for being almost politically reactionary. In some ways, like the more image of the Wicca one gets from reading the interviews from the 70s. Do you think those impulses are related?

Eric Riley: Faith traditions have some political leaning. It’s kind of hard to escape it, because religion shapes the way one thinks about the world. Hardline faiths of all stripes come out politically reactionary. That’s why this whole “day of prayer” thing in Texas has been such a clusterfuck. It’s hardline evangelicals praying to God to make the country better, i.e. in their image of what better means. Asatru is infamous for being a kind of haven for neo-nazi propaganda. But this is only a small fraction of those who make up a larger tradition. But in a small faith even a fraction can make a big impact on the perception of the faith.

Each of the different Pagan faiths that are operating today attract people from different political bents and they retain those whose worldviews most closely align with that of the group. Starhawk’s Reclaiming tradition is probably the most politically active of the modern Pagan faiths that I’ve seen today, but that’s because it is rooted in 1970’s feminism, which was itself a political movement. It’s no surprise really.

Part of what’s going on in America right now is that because Paganism has grown so much there is a growing need for political recognition. That’s why these small victories in things like military chaplaincy and soldier’s tombstones having a pentacle on them are so important. It’s validating the plurality of religious experience in the country. So more and more Pagan faiths are joining together to achieve this recognition.

But to touch on your point about Abrahamic faiths, it took hundreds of years for the Catholic church to solidify into a unified practice under a codified text, and from then it generations of snuffing out heresies to maintain that structure. Given the diversity of modern Paganism and its growing plurality, I don’t see this kind of thing happening. I think that some people will stay with morally relativistic faiths and others will migrate to more hardline faiths, but not necessarily that there will ever be a kind of consolidation of Pagan faith. Nor do I think anyone wants that.

Skepoet:   I don’t think consolidation is a particular threat either, honestly, if what I have witnessed at pagan interfaith forums and in my interactions of the years is an indication, but I do wonder if mainlining of the pagan community will cause it to resemble the community that many were reacting against in the first place. Perhaps there is an analogy with say the development and diversity among GLBT activists. Anyway, let’s refocus: do you see renewed interest in the classics as being a part of the fact that education level among most pagans has changed?

Eric Riley: I think you were the one who posted the link to the Gus Di Zerega post about the mainstreaming of Paganism. I started reading it and didn’t finish it. Maybe I’ll pick it up today. I think you’re right. There’s actually a wonderful service that happens every year during Pride in DC with all the different gay and affirming churches coming together and I have been one of the local Pagans in that service on a regular basis. There is an honor and recognition of diversity that I see happening exactly the same way at Pagan interfaith things like Pagan Pride day.

That’s a great question. I think that it has to do with a growing interest in exploring the roots of Paganism in general. I don’t think that modern Pagans are more or less educated in a general sense (like college degree education), but that there has been a greater desire to go deeper. One of the biggest complaints I have heard in people dealing with the Pagan publishing industry has been the overabundance of “Wicca 101” books. This is a known quantity and has been out for 50 years now. Llewellyn has been guilty of perpetuating this practice too. But they know what sells, so they keep selling it. The problem is that most everyone knows all of the basics already. There is a desire to go beyond basics and that’s what is driving interest in primary source material.

I chalk this up to the fact that the religions are growing up. There is a greater interest in academic scholarship thanks to folks like Ronald Hutton and Chas Clifton who have made tremendous strides in that area. With Pagan Studies becoming an integrated part of the American Academy of Religions we’ll only see more of this.

I think that there has always been a desire among Pagans to legitimize their faith as a part of western civilization. That’s why people have clung to thing like Margaret Murray’s “Witch Cult in Western Europe”, Frazer’s “Golden Bough” and Robert Graves’ “White Goddess” which have all attempted to place witchcraft and cult worship in a historical context, and all of which suffered from a more poetic interpretation of facts. Returning to primary source material today is trying to bridge the gap between what we believe and what we know about where we come from.

Skepoet:   One criticism, though, is that Reconstructionist movements actually don’t always acknowledge the limitations of source material. In Celtic recon and in Norse recon there is a lot of problems with the fact that sources are either from cultural competitors or after Christian exposure?

Eric Riley: True. Snorri Sturluson is often the source that most Asatru lean toward, but he wrote long after Christianity came to the north. Celtic recon, I don’t even know what source material they use. Celtic civilizations were pre-literate so all of the mythology was written long after Christian conquest. Hellenismos and Religio Romana have less contention in that respect, though the only reason why those texts survived in the first place was the Church.

Skepoet:   Have you seen any major demographic shifts in reconstructionist or pagan movements?


Eric Riley: I haven’t been following the Pagan Census to really know the answer to that question.

Skepoet:   Do you see any trends that you find particularly hopeful that we haven’t already discussed?

Eric Riley: Not really. In fact I feel like we may see more decline. I think that in its current incarnation we are dependent upon availability of literature to increase members. While the Internet helps a bit, the death of Borders and the loss of independent Pagan booksellers is troubling. Also the closure of the Pagan community center, I believe it was in Minneapolis, doesn’t bode well. DC has been struggling to get a Pagan community center opened here in the District for over 10 years. I keep wondering if that will ever come to fruition, even though money keeps rolling in. Sustainability is a problem. Cults grow and pop and dissipate regularly. In faiths that have a superstructure to support them this is less of a problem. Because we are so very autonomous there’s no center to hold onto and we get blown to the four winds too easily.

Skepoet:   Do you think a decline from eclecticism and an increasing movement into various recon paths will weakened the center as well? Or is this an overly pessimistic reading of your statement?

Eric Riley: I’m not sure. I think I feel a general dissipation across the board, not just a migration from eclectic/syncretic faith to more structured reconstructionist trads. Again, this is just a feeling. I haven’t really looked at the numbers to know for certain. But one that is for sure is that during an economic downturn people hold onto money. That means they’re not spending on books, donating to churches and community centers, going to conventions and gatherings, or taking courses that may cost money. Thus there is a general decrease in activity in Pagan events across the board. I don’t think this is the death of faith, but a return to less public expressions of Pagan faith or larger shared groups. I have no idea how places like Circle sanctuary are doing, but some groups have experienced noticeable downturn. I’ve never been involved in a recon group directly, nor do I think I would do so or have the time or money to do so.

 For previous in this series, see the first interview here. 

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